While the Springboks should win the Tri-Nations, they appear to be in free-fall with the series victory over the hyped up Lions having plastered over the cracks.
It may have been a superb series win, and one that eases the pain and baggage the national collective carried for 12 years, but testament to just how average these Lions were was that it took just two 20 minute surges – one in the first quarter of the first Test and the second in the final quarter of the second – to put them away.
What essentially amounts to one half of rugby playing somewhere close to the ceiling of their potential won’t win the Springboks the Tri-Nations. In fact, it will place them in a good position to lose it.
This Springboks should win the southern-hemisphere showpiece. That assertion is not one made on a whim, and neither is it an arrogant one made without due consideration for the appreciable ability of their opponents, New Zealand and Australia.
Here’s the rationale behind that assertion. The draw favours the Springboks, as they play the All Blacks twice in South Africa to open their campaign, and then face Australia in Cape Town.
Both those sides won in the Republic in 2008, but that was a Springbok side under a new coaching staff, and one that boasted new combinations in key positions, and one still getting to grips with Peter de Villiers’s playing philosophy which was a significant departure to what they were used to under Jake White.
If they could take a minimum of 12 points from those three encounters, it would leave them having to win two of their three remaining Tests to win the tournament, with two of those three against Australia, whom they are more favoured to beat away from home, particularly in Perth were they have always been competitive, than they would be against the All Blacks.
Furthermore, Australia have a talented but inexperienced squad who’ll be a force in 2011 under master engineer Robbie Deans, but are still settling in 2009.
New Zealand have been ravaged by injuries to key players, most notably their architect Dan Carter, and their lack of quality depth, particularly in the forwards, has been exposed by France and to a lesser extent Italy, in their mid-year Tests. They aren’t the force they have been for the last decade.
But the Springboks aren’t the force they should be either. Even playing to 70% of their potential they should have out McGeechan’s motley crew away by at least 20 in the first two Tests, and the fringe players were at least 10 points better than them on paper.
Yet, perplexing substitutions saw the Lions rebound from a 19-point deficit in the first Test to lose narrowly, while in the second a Springbok rearguard was aided significantly by the fact that the Lions’ four best players were watching from the sidelines with an assortment of injuries.
The third Test featured the same tactical naivety that characterised their awful performances in defeats to the All Blacks and Wallabies (two apiece) in 2008.
Have the Springboks progressed tactically and mentally since 2008? A strong argument could be made that they haven’t. An even stronger one can be made that they’ve regressed. If that is the case it is a poor indictment on the coaching staff. A supremely gifted and relatively young group like this should never regress.
By Ryan Vrede