The fact that the Springboks go into Saturday’s Test at Twickenham against a limited England side unsure of a win is indicative of how far they’ve regressed since being crowned world champions.
This is a side they smashed three times in 2007 – twice putting 50 points on them and once in the World Cup pool match by 36. They then downed them in the World Cup final to cap a year where the once mighty enemy was battered to a pulp and was begging for mercy at the feet of the Springboks.
Yet just over a year on from that magical night in Paris, the Springboks travel to Twickenham a shadow of the side that lifted the trophy, and one who are perceived to be primed for the taking by the hosts. This is unbelievable.
They’ve won eight of 12 games under coach Peter de Villiers and while that may seem a fair return on the surface, it needs to be noted that four of those victories were against seriously understrength Wales (two Tests), Italy and Argentina sides. Of the other four, three were won by five points or less and one was a rout of Australia at Ellis Park.
Their demise hasn’t come as a result of a mass exodus of players or the dramatic slump in the form of those players. Exceptional players don’t suddenly become this ordinary in the space of a year.
The bulk of that World Cup winning squad is still in the mix. In fact, some may argue that the squad has been strengthened with the addition of Adi Jacobs, Conrad Jantjes, Andries Bekker, Brian Mujati, Beast Mtawarira, Ryan Kankowski, Pierre Spies and Jean de Villiers (the latter duo missed the tournament after being diagnosed with a blood disease and tearing a bicep muscle respectively).
Given the calibre of players available to De Villiers, the rhetoric this week should be of by how much, rather than if the Springboks will prevail at Twickenham.
Yet the English media and public will talk up their team’s chances this week, analysing the Springboks in an attempt to establish why the mighty beast is dying a slow, excruciating death, and how their nation’s rugby hyenas can put the animal out of its misery.
This is an England side whose hopes of victory will rest largely on a pack that is living on the reputation established for them by the warriors of the early-to-mid-2000s, an ageing captain whose performance level doesn’t justify is selection in the run-on side, a flyhalf who’ll only be as good as they believe him to be now, in five years time, and a rookie fullback “sensation” (as The Guardian described Delon Armitage).
Danny Cipriani is undoubtedly talented but limited – ordinary in most facets of play and exceptional in none. He is no Ruan Pienaar. Even after just two Tests at flyhalf most unbiased observers would concede that the world’s elite nations would select Pienaar ahead of Cipriani if they had the choice.
The England pack, touted to trouble the Australians this past weekend, maintained parity for the early part of the contest then crumbled, with that scrummaging supremo (cough), Al Baxter, taking all the plaudits.
Young fullback Armitage is an exciting prospect but his fallibility was exposed against world class opposition on Saturday.
Individually England cannot compare with the Springboks. But the strength and synergy of the collective has always been more important to winning Test matches than individual ability has.
Thus far there has been an alarming over-reliance on individuals to drive the Springboks to victory. They came close to paying the price for that in two consecutive Tests, and England, as limited as they are, possess the ability to punish them if that situation is perpetuated.
The last three victories – over Australia, Wales and Scotland – plasters over ever widening cracks. While De Villiers and his coaching staff maintain that progress is being made, a review of how the Springboks finished 2007 disproves that assertion.
How have we gotten to the point where the South African rugby fraternity are unsure of anything but a Springbok victory over a team that will be laden with passion and physical intensity, but lack the rugby intelligence, technical skill and personnel to get them into the pound with rugby’s big dogs? Perplexing.
By Ryan Vrede