Boks must eliminate the bumps

2015-09-29 20:55
Schalk Burger (Gallo Images)

Newcastle – Slick and near-inspiring though their World Cup victory over Samoa was, all it really did was extend the schizophrenic nature of South Africa’s performance curve in international rugby for too long.

The Springbok graph over the last two years leading up to (and then into) RWC 2015 looks more an old Dakota flying through a fierce tropical storm ... so many ups and downs that you are tempted to reach for the sick bag.

It is that very volatility in the results column that explains the Boks’ recession to what many of their fans would justifiably brand unacceptable mid-table (presently fifth) among the top 10 or so powers in global rugby.

All that the first two pool matches of the World Cup have done is starkly demonstrate their unpredictability: from an all-time low of shock defeat to Japan, to 40-point burial of Samoa, and all in the space of a crazy week.

Little wonder that senior player Schalk Burger, at one of the earliest press briefings here in the build-up to Saturday’s clash with group-topping Scotland, stressed the need for consistency to take root fast if they are to have a real chance of advancing to a third Webb Ellis Cup.

“We must take the formula from last week and get it right again,” said the loose forward dynamo, who may just find himself leading out the Boks at St James’ Park, especially if Victor Matfield is ruled unfit.

It is hard to dispute that Burger hit the nail on the head: if they want pundits and their own supporters to start getting properly excited about Bok trophy prospects, then beating the Scots and preferably even with a bit to spare seems the necessary requirement.

Crash again, and not only will the resurgent optimism of the last few days ping right back out of the window, but even qualification for the knockout phase will become seriously imperilled.

Do these particular Boks really want to be the first to come home from a World Cup without reaching so much as the quarter-finals? (For purposes of this theme, the fact that I suspect South Africa may still sneak into the knockouts even if they surrender a tight one to the Scots should be deemed neither here nor there.)

A premature homecoming of that kind might even inspire the ubiquitous Fikile Mbalula, the sports minister, to seek a stronger admonishing statement than “bunch of losers”, and many people would wish to do without that prospect.

But there can be bizarrely fine lines between success and failure in sport, and if the Boks do put the Scots away in convincing fashion – something they have managed many times before – there will be infinitely greater merit in suggesting a mounting head of steam for the “KO” phase.

Statistically, simply achieving back-to-back wins, which would be the case if they pull one off here, would be a welcome development to Bok enthusiasts; it hasn’t happened over the course of any of the last seven Tests and that is rare for South Africa.

If you want to find a worthy run of the kind of “consistency” Burger speaks of recapturing, you are best served by tracing the Boks back to a period between November 2013 and August 2014, when they were making real strides in terms of making winning cultural under the stewardship of Heyneke Meyer.

In that roughly 10-month stint, they earned nine victories on the trot (albeit including a low-gravitas triumph over a supposed “World XV”) and it included a commendable clean sweep of the 2013 end-of-year tour, with comfortable scoreboard margins into the bargain against all of Wales, France and Saturday’s opponents the Scots.

If injuries are casting a fresh, irksome cloud over their preparations with the game only four days away, at least the Boks will be appreciating from their Gateshead base the ongoing largely sunny, mild autumn weather even in the proverbial “grim north” of England.

It is predicted to stay pretty much the same for match-day, and that will come as a relief to Bok survivors of the 2010 meeting with Scotland at Edinburgh, fewer than 150 kilometres up the road from here.

That was a traditional foul, late November winter’s day at Murrayfield, and the Scots positively revelled in the rain-lashed, frigid and muddy conditions as they ground out a 21-17 outcome in their favour.

As much as there is a theory the Scots will treat this virtually as a home match, given how many of their supporters will make the short trek down for it – England’s 2003 RWC-winning coach Clive Woodward said pre-tournament he had a gut feel it would help power a minor upset Scotland victory over the Boks – it is also well apparent that there is a formidable green-and-gold army following the SA side around this tournament.

Many of them would also have been at that productive occasion in Birmingham a few days ago.

All they want is a bit more of the same, please ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing. Rob is attending the Bok pool phase to provide news and analysis for Sport24 readers.

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