The Springbok discipline has been shocking throughout the three-Test series, a fact that confirms all is not well in the South African camp.
‘That was just two minutes of the game, and we play for 80 minutes,’ head coach Peter de Villiers replied when asked about the senseless scuffle that afforded the Lions a late penalty in Saturday’s defeat.
The Lions won by more than three points, but that wasn’t the issue. De Villiers dodged the question pertaining to brain explosions that are becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Why is he dodging the question? Because the answer is a poor reflection on himself. The Boks are an aggravated lot, just as they were under Rudolf Straeuli. Does that suggest they don’t back their own coach or are unhappy under his rule?
You look at the evidence and you decide.
The senior players have had to take on greater responsibility since De Villiers came to power. A tumultuous 2008 Tri-Nations was characterised by what De Villiers called total rugby, a brand that was devoid of sense or structure, and most importantly a brand that led to a last-place finish. On the end-of-the-year tour, the game against England witnessed the reversion to a more structured approach as the senior players put their collective foot down to force De Villiers into submission.
De Villiers was hailed in the aftermath, but insiders confirmed the senior players were determined to play to a pattern akin to the one that won the World Cup.
In 2008, De Villiers’s advisors peddled the line, ‘Give us time to work with him’, implying that given a chance, he could become a half decent coach.
Together with his consistently ridiculous press conference offerings, his rugby contribution has failed to improve. That first Test in Durban was so nearly lost thanks to some mindless substitutions in the final quarter, and in the second and third Tests, the patent lack of player discipline served to highlight his lack of control.
The Boks are getting worse, not better. Maybe it’s taken Saturday’s defeat for more people to realise that.
Most of these Bok players have been together for five years and a number boast over 50 caps. When you see a player like Victor Matfield, a veteran and vice-captain of the Boks, involved in off-the-ball fighting, you have to wonder. There’s aggression and then there’s senseless pushing and shoving that ultimately ends in a penalty against your own team. The experienced players just don’t do that.
Indiscipline is not limited to foul play. It was written off as rust in the first Test, but the Bok decision-making has been shocking across all three games. The Boks were robbed of a kickable penalty in the final stages of the second Test because Bismarck du Plessis took a quick tap. Where was the common sense?
Sure, players need to be held accountable for their own poor decisions, but when they occur so frequently you have to question the coaching philosophy that continues to tolerate perpetual failure in this regard.
Some would say John Smit should shoulder some of the blame for not taking more control on the park. Smit is already under enough pressure trying to play a position that’s not his best, and play it for 80 minutes since the Bok management haven’t bothered to include another specialist tighthead on the bench. No, Smit’s done an admirable job in this series despite the coaching staff, not because of them.
The balance of the 22 has been suspect across the series, the substitutions in the first Test highlighting the point. The decision to field a team boasting 10 changes in the third Test was also flawed given the Boks were so shaky in the first two games. The results failed to hide the fact that they were off the pace.
De Villiers is now talking about building for the Tri-Nations, as if defeat to the Lions’ second-stringers in Johannesburg has afforded him some great insight. Another win for the Bok first side would not have served as a precursor to Tri-Nations glory, but it would have afforded the Boks a further opportunity to attain the synergy that was so obviously lacking in Durban and Pretoria.
The Boks head into the Tri-Nations a group of individuals when they should head into this tournament a hardened and well-drilled team. They have the Lions series win to show for their efforts, but their sub-standard performances in all three games tell a truer story.
This side is stacked with individual talent, but without the necessary management, the team is on a downward spiral. Ian McGeechan came to South Africa with a limited team and managed to record a relatively commendable 2-1 result. De Villiers went into a home series with a world champion team, scraped two wins and then proceeded to field an unbalanced group of youngsters to lose at the fortress Ellis Park. Who should be celebrated and who should be condemned?
The Boks have beaten the Lions and South Africa should celebrate the result, and after that, South Africa should move on. In moving on, South Africa should acknowledge why their world champion team is not performing to world champion standards.
The bottom line is that as a top rugby nation, we deserve more than a second-rate coach.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg