The long road to progress

A four-match unbeaten run cannot erase a disastrous Tri-Nations campaign, but the Springboks’ adoption of a more direct game strategy bodes well for the 2009 Test season.

It’s been a turbulent first year for coach Peter de Villiers both on and off the pitch, but most supporters will shift their focus from South African rugby to South African cricket content that Saturday’s 42-6 thumping of England signified a perfect end to a good season. However, what defines a good season is debatable, as it’s clear South Africa failed in their primary objective.

Looking at the numbers, the Boks won nine of their 13 Tests. While this statistic may suggest success, it fails to underline the importance of the four games lost by the Boks and how a team at the top of the world in 2007 ultimately slipped to No 2 in the world in 2008. The Tri-Nations was the priority this year and yet the Boks blundered to four defeats. Saru president Regan Hoskins said two wins in this tournament was not acceptable and he was dead right. A flawed game plan was to blame, and given the improved strategical showing in the UK it appears as if the Bok management has learned from that disappointment.

The Wales and Italy Tests in June were all about preparation for the Tri-Nations, but the Boks battled under De Villiers’s expansive and unstructured playing style. A weakened Wales tested the Boks in the first half at Loftus Versfeld, and the performance at the breakdown was a sign of things to come in the Tri-Nations. Wellington witnessed a rudderless display by the world champions, and what made the defeat harder to bear was the fact that New Zealand were missing most of the mob that dominated to an overwhelming degree in 2006 and 2007.

Dunedin was an undoubted highlight, with Ricky Januarie writing his name into history with a spectacular match-winning effort that ended a 10-year drought on New Zealand soil. The Boks were a man short with Victor Matfield in the sin bin, and were also the poorer for having lost captain John Smit to injury in the previous match. But Januarie provided the moment of brilliance that not only smashed the hoodoo, but also marked the first ever win for the Springboks at the House of Pain.

Success was short lived as the Boks crashed to earth in the following match against the Aussies in Perth. The Argentina blowout in the middle of the Tri-Nations was a farce as it provided little preparation for of the next fixture against New Zealand and cost the Boks’ a key player in Bakkies Botha. What followed was a black day at Newlands where the Boks failed to score a single point against the All Blacks. The next weekend in Durban wasn’t much better, as the Bok players and coach were booed off the field after going down to Australia.

That was only three months ago. The South African rugby community were livid with a team that had so easily relinquished the proud record of not conceding a home defeat to Australia since 2000. It also signified the end of the line in terms of the Boks’ Tri-Nations aspirations, an unforgivable result given the rebuilding of the Australasian teams. De Villiers said every team went into a slump after winning the World Cup, but the fall from champs to chumps confirmed much larger problems.

Ellis Park was a triumph in that the Boks went back to what they knew. They never risked running from their own half and Butch James and Fourie du Preez controlled the game splendidly through their superior tactical kicking. The forwards smashed the Wallabies and provided the perfect platform, and once South Africa had a decent lead they opened up and eventually recorded a thrilling 53-8 victory.

A similar style was employed in Cardiff, although the Boks’ execution was not as good as it was in Johannesburg. The Boks also stuttered in Scotland with assistant coach Dick Muir’s promise of moving towards a more expansive approach realised in hapzard fashion. It was a forgettable showing at Murrayfield; one that in no way prepared them for the all-important clash at Twickenham a week later.

The Bok performance against England was far from perfect, but their playing style suited the occasion with Ruan Pienaar and Ricky Januarie the heroes in the tactical clash. They never ran as much from their own half as they did against Scotland, and they managed to score a couple of breath-taking tries after a patient build up. In the aftermath, De Villiers himself lamented the fact that South Africa didn’t score more tries in the 42-6 victory, and that they didn’t score more tries after using a more ‘direct’ approach to lay the platform.

This was the guy who preached the expansive, helter-skelter gospel in June. There have been inconsistencies when you hear Muir talk about pushing players to be more attacking and express themselves, but overall it appears as if De Villiers has finally seen the light. Whether everybody on the coaching staff now sees eye to eye is still up for debate, but few can deny the Boks are finally headed in the right direction.

By Jon Cardinelli