MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says that guaranteeing the likes of Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana a place in the World Cup squad has done them no favours.
It wasn’t so much that the Bulls lost against the Crusaders. It’s the manner in which the bully boys of Super Rugby were dismantled.
Players, in the context of a World Cup year, will always have an escape; be it that the year is a marathon and not a sprint or that the peak has to come in New Zealand in October. They will also have an excuse that they want to be judged at the World Cup, but to do this the player actually has to get there and too many of those singled out by Springbok coach Peter de Villiers as certainties are currently not deserving of a ticket to New Zealand.
Experience will always be significant in a World Cup campaign, but nothing substitutes for form and the form of the Bulls players, in particular, cannot be ignored. It is just not good enough.
The South African momentum in 2007 came in Super Rugby. Those players who excelled at the World Cup in 2007 were the form players of Super Rugby. Bryan Habana was sensational as a finisher and Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha were destructive and dominant in everything they did.
It isn’t so this year.
Watching these three icons of the last decade on Saturday was particularly sad. Habana would struggle to catch a cold at the moment and while I can understand the Stormers coaching staff refusing to lose faith in him, there has been nothing in the tournament to justify the conviction that it is only a matter of time before he rediscovers his mojo.
You can’t compare the quality of wing play to that which Habana produced in 2007, while Matfield and Botha, as a combination, no longer command the presence of four years ago.
Matfield’s performance against the Crusaders was his worst in a decade of Super Rugby. Any criticism has to be balanced with what he has achieved, but Matfield’s form, like that of the Bulls, has become more than an aberration. It is a weekly issue.
Sharks and Springbok captain John Smit continues to be singled out every week for his lack of form and inability to command a starting place at hooker for the Sharks, but Matfield has escaped similar scrutiny, as has Botha.
The guarantee that the quartet of Smit, Matfield, Botha and Habana will go to the World Cup has done them no favours and it does little to inspire confidence in the selection process for the next generation of players who have to accept that until there is a change of Bok coach there won’t be a change in selection policy.
The Bulls, as a unit, have refused to adapt their style of play this year, but without physical superiority and set-piece control they can’t be successful. Write them off as championship material.
Not so the Sharks and Stormers, who have shown enough in the first half of the campaign to inspire confidence that they are good enough to go all the way.
The Crusaders and Reds, of the Australasian teams, are of a similar pedigree. The Reds were outstanding in Cape Town in the way they inflicted a first tournament defeat on the Stormers. Reds coach Ewen McKenzie won the coaches’ battle, the Reds forwards edged the collisions and the halfbacks, Will Genia and Quade Cooper, added the final touches to a win that was surprisingly comfortable. The Stormers were out-muscled, out-thought and outplayed for the first time this season and the emphasis should be more on what the Reds did right than what the Stormers got wrong. This was a match won by the Reds and not lost by the Stormers.
It was also a lesson to Stormers coach Allister Coetzee that to win this tournament his team need more than just defence and more good than bad will come from having lost at this stage of the season.
Coetzee has consistently defended the style of play by pointing to the scoreboard. This week he doesn’t have the scoreboard as his ally and, I hope, that will challenge him to be more creative in his response to the defeat and in his approach to the match against the Lions.
Let me emphasise again that the Stormers losing was not a disaster. What happened to the Bulls in Timaru, New Zealand, was far more damaging.