These Boks are a sham

MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says South Africa stands accused of turning its back on the greatest challenge in rugby – taking on and beating New Zealand in their own backyard.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, in announcing his Tri-Nations squad for the Tests in Australia and New Zealand, effectively named his starting XV for the World Cup opener against Wales in New Zealand.

He also gave Sanzar’s administration – the Aussies and the Kiwis – a big up yours.

The Bok coach, keeping a straight face, told the world the squad selected was the best available and that there was no coincidence that all those players declared injured are his first-choice players.

The exception is captain and hooker John Smit, who will lead the team against Wales. Smit is in Australia and New Zealand with the Bok second-string combination but it is only because he is so short on game time as a hooker. De Villiers needs Smit to play; he doesn’t want his World Cup starting line-up to be in action just yet.

Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Butch James, Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira are players listed as injured. Wow, what a coincidence. I can’t recall any occasion in the past 100 years when the entire Bok starting XV has simultaneously been crocked.

Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer once told me that if a referee turned his back on the game, waved at the crowd, blew his whistle, turned backed to the play and awarded a team a penalty he’d find a technical infringement that supported his decision. Meyer was referring to the technical over-complication in rugby’s laws and how a referee could penalise players at every move.

I can apply the same argument to players being injured. I don’t know of a rugby player who will tell you he is 100% fit. Every guy plays through pain and niggles. Shoulder, lower back, knee and groin strains are the easiest to disguise in a medical report as there is no way to tell if a player’s groin isn’t sore or his lower back isn’t giving him pain.

The Boks are not injured. De Villiers simply needed a camp so that his core group could work with technical adviser Rassie Erasmus.

Burger and Smith are the only two who couldn’t have toured. If the World Cup final was being played this week, the sick, cripple and needy would all be available with the exception of the mentioned loose-forward duo.

Former Bok coach Jake White did exactly the same thing in 2007. He played his best team against the All Blacks and Australia in the home Tests and kept his 20 main players in Cape Town for a three-week camp (also with Erasmus), while the second stringers lost 25-17 to Australia in Sydney (after leading 17-0) and got smashed 33-6 in New Zealand.

White said at the time he was willing to sacrifice the Tri-Nations because the World Cup was the bigger prize and the players needed time out from Test rugby while they prepared for the World Cup.

I didn’t agree with his decision on sending lambs to the slaughter in the disguise of Springboks. Neither did the Australian and New Zealand rugby unions, who rightly argued the Test matches had been devalued because of the selection.

White, though, did not lie about the situation. He did not tell anyone that the groin epidemic had dealt a collective blow to the best players in the country … all at the same time.

White got the right result because the Boks won the 2007 World Cup. Australia and New Zealand did not succeed, but I don’t believe it had anything to do with them having played their players in the Tri-Nations. Australia lost in Marseilles because they did not have a scrum to match England’s, and New Zealand lost in Cardiff because of shocking team selections, a one-dimensional game plan in which they relied primarily on the pick and go drive as an attacking option and the odd forward pass that went against them and no penalties that went for them in the last 50 minutes.

Outside the deceit – from within the South African Rugby Union (Saru) – in being selective with the truth about injuries, what irks me the most is how easily a match between the Boks and All Blacks is dismissed as an irritation because of the World Cup.

I don’t buy into it and I never will. To play the All Blacks in New Zealand and beat them is why a South African plays the game. It is the greatest challenge for a Bok player to go to New Zealand and beat the All Blacks. Similarly for the All Blacks to come to South Africa and beat the Boks.

The All Blacks have had more success in South Africa (13 wins from 22) than the Boks in New Zealand (3 from 21), but in the past decade no team has won as many times against the Boks in South Africa and no team has beaten New Zealand more than once in New Zealand. The Boks, with two wins, are the exception.

Why call it a Test match when it isn’t a test of one’s best? Why send a team as the Springboks when they don’t represent the country’s best? Why play the Tri-Nations in a World Cup year?

I know it is all about the money and the product, but the product is second rate when the actors are second rate. And just because it is about money doesn’t mean it has to be accepted.

There is a good chance that South Africa playing the All Blacks in Wellington this month won’t sell out. What an insult to the history of the two teams. And rightly so.

If De Villiers’ Boks win the World Cup it won’t change my view about the situation because there is life beyond the World Cup and there is life before it … and that includes the Tri-Nations. For God’s sake, there is also a history to acknowledge, honour and protect of rugby between the Springboks and All Blacks.

Sanzar, the toothless tiger that governs Tests between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, has to review the issues of the Tri-Nations in a World Cup year. They are mocking the paying public in allowing situations where 20 players are pulled out of their showcase. The mocking is that the same ticket price is being charged to see understudies perform.

The broadcaster is also to blame for accommodating match-ups where the best players are part of the audience instead of the action.

The solution could be in an admission that the World Cup is so big nothing else matters and in a World Cup year no other Test rugby is played. Less would then give more quality at the showcase event.

It seems few share my anger at the decision and most are shrugging their shoulders and saying it is part of professionalism and life in an era of World Cups.

You have the New Zealand media applauding South Africa’s decision because they believe it gave the Boks an advantage in 2007 and it will do so again. They are saying bugger the Tri-Nations. You have former All Blacks coach John Mitchell agreeing that the Tri-Nations means nothing in a World Cup year, even if he doesn’t agree with the decision to send a second-string team to New Zealand, and you have the Saru CEO Jurie Roux saying his conscience is clear and he is perfectly comfortable with the situation that the best available Boks are in Australia. I’d like to remind Roux that ‘best available’ is in rugby what ‘alleged’ is in law. It is a cop out.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry resisted giving his best 30 players time out and picked all those players who will go to the World Cup. Henry said the Tri-Nations, as a tournament, was very important to New Zealand and the players wanted to win it again in 2011.

He also felt it was good preparation as a lead-in to the World Cup because there were only three weeks between the conclusion of the Tri-Nations and the start of the World Cup.

Sport is all about momentum and I believe this Tri-Nations is the ideal preparation for the World Cup. The winner of the World Cup will be New Zealand, South Africa or Australia. You can forget the northern hemisphere challenge. Those guys aren’t good enough to beat these teams at home; they certainly won’t be a danger in New Zealand.

De Villiers, in copying his predecessor, has got it wrong. He should have sent his best to New Zealand to play the All Blacks in Wellington. He would either have got the win or he would have seen how far off the pace the side is. There would also have been clarity as to whether his seasoned veterans have one more big game in them against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

A year ago the Boks took a 32-12 hammering in Auckland. In three months’ time the Boks are expected to meet the All Blacks at the same venue in the World Cup semi-final.

Wellington, for me, would have been the perfect match for the World Cup Boks because it would have given them a dry run for the semi-final and put into perspective just what the chances are of World Cup success. It would have been an advantage shared only by Australia. No northern hemisphere team has the luxury of playing the All Blacks in New Zealand before the World Cup.

De Villiers has avoided the confrontation, possibly because he wants to keep the truth at bay for at least the next three months. The 2007 Bok World Cup winners looked like yesterday’s heroes in Auckland a year ago. Wellington would have confirmed that or given South Africans renewed hope for the World Cup.

De Villiers recently said he pretends there are no injuries because it makes it easier to deal with. Perhaps he also pretends there are no All Blacks waiting in New Zealand at the World Cup.

The coach and his best players have refused the greatest challenge in world rugby, which is playing and beating the All Blacks in New Zealand. They have turned their backs on the chance to face down the haka and hammer those laying down the challenge.

A Springboks versus All Blacks Test deserves more. So does the rugby supporter of both nations.

– This article first appeared in the July issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is distributed FREE with the newspaper on the second last Friday of the month.