From the penthouse to the shithouse

The drop in form for the world champion Boks – and in particular 2007 IRB player of the year Bryan Habana – has been dramatic.

In Edinburgh this morning the talk is rightfully of heroism, bravehearts and lost opportunity. The Scots, ranked ninth in the world, were a try away from upstaging the world champion Springboks. In South African cities the rugby talk rightfully is of disgust at the performance of the Springboks.

One country’s support base had no reason to believe a victory was possible, while the one in which we live had no reason to believe defeat to the sad Scots was a possibility.

Scotland are an ordinary side, so any attempt to justify or applaud this Springbok performance must be rubbished. This was no come from behind win; it was an insult to what was achieved by many of the same players a year ago.

Something has to be seriously wrong when Bryan Habana, the player of the year in 2007, is substituted 30 minutes before the end on successive weekends, and the only surprise is that he wasn’t yanked 30 minutes into the respective matches.

It is becoming tiresome, not to mention repetitive, to hear the players, in their post-match summary, talk of how they went back to a structured game plan at halftime and how they focused on doing the basics and playing to a style that complimented their strengths.

The players may mean well, but in attempting to articulate the performance they condemn the coaching staff because the words are those of players at odds with the coaching philosophy.

This is not a healthy Springbok side. They don’t have the aura of a year ago and it is because they don’t have the fitness, confidence, discipline and self-belief of the side that effortlessly arm-wrestled all opposition at the World Cup. They also don’t have the intellectual capital in what is a very inexperienced coaching trio.

There has been no rebuilding of the side, so that can’t be an excuse, and there has been no growth.

The Boks, for all their failings, may squeeze past England on Saturday, but again it will be more reflective of the limitations of the opposition than any South African revival.

The continued doublespeak in game plan; the contradictions in romance and realism; have left loose-forwards on the wing, locks in the midfield and props at first receiver, with the occasional clean out at the ruck coming from a wing, centre and flyhalf.

South Africa’s strength is physicality at the breakdown and dominance in contact. Against Scotland players attacked as individuals, got isolated and were often turned over, and when the Boks did get numbers to the breakdown there was no discipline. Put bluntly, there was no plan as a team or for individuals, especially Habana, who internationally has gone from the penthouse to the shithouse.

Habana’s decline is alarming and if he is not injured then it must rank as among the more dramatic reversals of form. Currently he can’t catch a ball, run a support line or even make an intercept count, and to see a novice Scottish winger beat him on the outside, much as Welsh wizard Shane Williams did earlier this season, is more mystifying than it is embarrassing for Habana.

Habana should not be playing against England because his form does not warrant inclusion ahead of Jonge Nokwe. A few others should also not be playing against England, but the insular selection policy that picks Brian Mujati ahead of the northern hemisphere-based CJ van der Linde and BJ Botha and Earl Rose ahead of Bath’s Butch James means some of South Africa’s best players will watch Saturday’s Test from the stands at Twickenham.

Fourie du Preez’s injury means there is a scrumhalf crisis, but a bit more innovative thinking could have turned a mishap into an opportunity with the selection of Saracens and former Stormers scrumhalf Neil de Kock, who has consistently been the best scrumhalf in England for the last three seasons.

That, however, would require having a plan – and like with Habana, if there is such a thing I know I am not alone in failing to see it.

These are disturbing times for the Boks because damage is being done now that will only come to the fore when the British and Irish Lions tour South Africa next June.