JON CARDINELLI writes there can be no more denial. The Springboks are in a state of crisis.
After the Tri-Nations, we were told that the Boks were unlucky to finish stone last. Peter de Villiers didn’t believe there were fundamental defensive problems, even though the Boks conceded 22 tries in six matches. He didn’t believe the Boks were guilty of tactical stupidity, even though they were largely outplayed by Australia and New Zealand.
‘You can’t control winning or losing,’ De Villiers offered, along with another favourite phrase: ‘People obsess too much about winning and losing, and I think lately I am guilty of obsessing about it too.’ He said that he didn’t know why the Boks were losing, this despite the large salary he draws from Saru, an organisation that pays him to know.
Unbelievably, Saru handed the madcap coach a last chance on the Grand Slam Tour. It was important to restore a winning culture as well as the flagging faith of a rugby public that had grown tired of De Villiers’ inadequacies on and off the pitch.
The Grand Slam tour became the Grand Sham tour. Four wins here, and the five losses in the 2010 Tri-Nations would be remembered as a speed bump rather than stalling block in the collective memory.
The Grand Sham was going so well too, with scrappy wins against Ireland and Wales described by the South African rugby spin machine as gutsy and heroic triumphs. But when the Boks fell to Scotland, the weakest of the home unions and a side ranked No 8 in the world, those living in Lalaland were smacked with a healthy dose of reality.
Defeat will demand reflection not only from the Springbok coaches and players, but also from the people that employ them. The Springbok brand has taken a hammering in 2010, and last Saturday witnessed yet another agonising body blow. Changes need to be affected so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
South Africa last lost to Scotland in 2002 when Rudolf Straeuli was at the helm. Straeuli told the media and public to stop worrying about the poor results and judge him at the World Cup, and we all know how that panned out. De Villiers has the same attitude in that he’s convinced the Boks are on the right track.
The Tri-Nations showcased the Boks’ failings on defence, and their impotency on attack. Their consistency was also a worry, as intensity levels were never maintained for the full 80 minutes. The Boks never improved in these problem areas, and were fortunate to edge past Ireland and Wales. But they couldn’t push past the plucky Scots, a team that finally punished the Boks for their inconsistency and tactical ignorance.
And has De Villiers improved? Again, the wins against Ireland and Wales overshadowed the fact that the Boks were nowhere near the clinical unit that claimed every cup on offer in 2009. De Villiers also retained his penchant for poor substitutions, and displayed a particular pigheadedness when it came to the management of Pat Lambie.
In the three tour fixtures thus far, De Villiers has subbed Morne Steyn for Lambie in the final quarter. On each occasion, the situation has never been right, and while this mistake didn’t cost South Africa in Dublin and Cardiff, it eventually cost them in Edinburgh.
It’s absurd that De Villiers talks about developing players when he ignored an obvious opportunity to try new starting combinations in this Edinburgh fixture, an exercise that would have had some value regardless of the result. As it stands, De Villiers has failed on both the counts of development and the game’s result.
It’s even more damning when you realise that only five first-choice players were missing from the Boks’ starting side at Murrayfield. If either Heinrich Brussow or Schalk Burger were fit, they would have occupied the openside flank position, while De Villiers opted to rest Pierre Spies in this Test. Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie are the other first-choice stars unavailable through injury.
And it must also be remembered that Scotland were missing a few stalwarts of their own, with captain and scrumhalf Mike Blair injured in the previous game against the All Blacks. Joe Ansbro was a late replacement for Max Evans, and Scotland struggled to enjoy a full training schedule in the build-up given the number of niggles incurred in the 49-3 blowout.
Credit must be given to Scotland for the monumental victory, but credit must go to South Africa’s stupidity on and off the field. It irrefutably contributed to the result. Hopefully it’s a result will be the one to initiate some change, and hopefully it doesn’t take a demoralising loss to England to give South African rugby the wake up call it needs.
The Boks are still capable of winning at Twickenham, and if they go on to beat the Barbarians, a four from five tour record doesn’t sound bad. But this tour was never just about results, and there can be no denial that the Boks have failed to improve on their Tri-Nations form.
Their fire needs rekindling. The situation in South Africa is such that there is sufficient raw materials in terms of quality players, and that with the correct management and restructuring, the Springbok fire could be ablaze by the 2011 World Cup. For that to happen, however, the right person needs to be appointed. It’s never been so clear that Peter de Villiers cannot extract the best from these players, and is unequivocally the wrong man for this job.