Time for honesty

There is nowhere to hide for the Boks, writes MARK KEOHANE in his weekly Business Day newspaper column.

Those questions asked in Auckland were emphatically answered in Wellington – and the results aren’t pleasing if you are South African.

The Springboks have taken a two-Test beating in New Zealand. Only 12 months ago the Boks embarrassed an All Blacks side that struggled with law interpretations, selection combinations and the physicality of the South Africans.

The roles are reversed. The Boks are the team whose selections are being questioned, who can’t come to terms with law interpretations and whose physicality lacked menace.

This is not a time for panic, but it is one for honesty. Springbok veterans are playing like they have stuck around for a Test too many, and there aren’t sadder sights than the greats of the game going a game too late when their pedigree is such the public believe they left the arena a match too early.

John Smit and Victor Matfield, two of the legends of Springbok rugby, seem to have aged a decade in the last fortnight. Matfield’s excessive Super 14 workload has caught up with him, but in Smit’s case it looks more complicated than an exhausting Super Rugby schedule.

Smit is a player whose career should be celebrated yet there were times in the last two Tests all you felt was pity. What an insult to a player who has given so much pleasure and made so much sacrifice. What an unpleasant situation.

Smit is the best modern Bok captain and a deserved World Cup winner, but the Smit parading in New Zealand in the last fortnight can’t be compared to the primed athlete that led this country to success in Paris in 2007.

The Boks of 2007 felt they could be better and those that went onto victories in New Zealand in 2008 and 2009 felt there was still more to come. You wanted to believe them and the Bulls and Stormers dominance in the Super 14 added to that belief, but was it ever realistic to expect them to go on this long, let alone until the end of 2011?

What does Bok coach Peter de Villiers do? Does he continue to have faith in those responsible for past glories or does he look to youthful injection? The risk with the latter is the medication may only kick in after next year’s World Cup. Then again there is no risk in maintaining the status quo, in player selection and game plan, as the results will be as devastating as they were in Toulouse, Dublin, Auckland and Wellington.

The red lights flashed on the end-of-year tour with emphatic defeats against France and Ireland. Fatigue was the excuse then. Jet lag was the escape in Auckland. But after Wellington there is nowhere to hide.

The Boks did not have the athleticism and fitness to counter the pace at which the All Blacks played both Tests. The combinations, in the back three, the midfield, the loose-trio and in the front row did not measure up to that of New Zealand’s and Ricky Januarie as the stand-in for Fourie du Preez was simply not good enough.

The game plan was also not effective. All South Africa did was use one-off strike runners in the channel closest to the breakdown, and all New Zealand did was smash would be South African attackers back in the tackle. With no gain line advantage, no subsequent momentum and an ineffective halfback kicking game, the Boks, as in Auckland, were chasing a game they were not conditioned enough to catch.

Those in denial will blame Alain Rolland’s refereeing performance, but he was not the one looking pedestrian on attack and lethargic in defence.

The Bok team that won the World Cup and cleaned up in last year’s Tri Nations did not easily miss first-time tackles and when they worked a turn over they punished opposition with lethal counter attack.

There was not a similar mongrel in defence in the last fortnight and there was absolutely no counter attacking intent, let alone threat to the All Blacks.

Changes have to be made, even if some of them won’t be enforced for Brisbane. Selecting a new back-three combination, a creative inside centre and Ruan Pienaar at scrumhalf will stop some of the bleeding against Australia this weekend, but it isn’t the cure for what happened in New Zealand.

Plasters can’t fix the Boks. Something more drastic and more dramatic is a must if the Boks are to be champions of the world next year.

– The July issue of Business Day Sport Monthly will be distributed FREE with the newspaper on Friday.

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