Battered Boks running out of time

JON CARDINELLI says the recent run of injuries has highlighted the arrogance of the assumption that the Springboks could just rock up at the World Cup and play themselves into form.

Back on 2 May, Peter de Villiers was a confident bloke. The Boks had just met for a World Cup planning camp, and the coach fronted the media to reveal his masterplan.

He was asked about the extended Super Rugby competition and how it would effect the players from a game time perspective. Even at that stage it was common knowledge that the Boks would tour Australasia without the core of their first-choice side, and many pundits expressed their concern that the senior players would enjoy insufficient opportunities before the global tournament kicked off in New Zealand.

De Villiers responded by saying that a World Cup was all about peaking at the right time, and stated that he would play his best team in all seven games (providing the Boks made it all the way to the final). He believed the Boks would find form during the tournament and that the established combinations would rediscover the synergy that made them so successful in 2009.

Fast-forward to the end of the Tri-Nations, and De Villiers was just as confident that the Boks would use the World Cup pool matches to gather the necessary momentum. It didn’t matter, he reasoned, that the Boks had lost three out of four Tri-Nations Tests. He was adamant that the World Cup pool stage was where it would all come together.

Back to the present. We’re a week into the World Cup, and things haven’t exactly transpired the way many would have hoped. If alarm bells aren’t ringing, they bloody well should be.

The victory against Wales shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the Boks were always going to be favourites to win their four pool games and top Pool D. What should be of concern is the poor performance. Four weeks out from a quarter-final and six weeks out from a possible title decider and the Boks are still struggling for synergy and discipline.

There are three games remaining before the play-offs, but the lengthy list of injuries will prevent the strongest possible side from playing the next three pool games in a row. Bakkies Botha has already missed the opening match due to an Achilles injury, while three more seniors in Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield, and Bryan Habana have been ruled out of the clash against Fiji. Johann Muller is also doubtful, and if it gets to the point where the Boks cannot field Matfield or Muller in a big play-off match, they’ll find themselves without a player capable of managing the most important area of their game.

A hip flexor injury has robbed Butch James of an opportunity to start at flyhalf this week, and so the Boks are forced to continue with Morne Steyn at 10. The absence of Jean de Villiers has also played a part in the selection of Frans Steyn at No 12, as playing Juan de Jongh alongside the defensively frail Morne Steyn in the 10-12 channel would be asking for trouble.

Had James been fit, De Jongh would have been a good bet at 12, and Frans Steyn would have continued to flourish at 15. Steyn played his best game since the 2009 British & Irish Lions series last week, and would have benefited from an extended run at fullback in the remaining pool matches, as would a Bok team that relies heavily on his kicking game from the back.

Defenders of Peter de Villiers will say that the situation is not within his control, and that he could not have anticipated such a horror run of injuries. The counter to that argument is that every team experiences injuries, and it is their ability to adapt to the situation that determines their success.

The big problem for the Boks is that their strongest side has failed to obtain the desired results for the past two seasons, and De Villiers has reacted by overextending some of the seniors in order to restore the public’s faith in the team.

Crucial players like Matfield should never have toured the home nations in November last year, while the next generation of Pat Lambie, Juan de Jongh and Francois Hougaard should have received more opportunities to ultimately prepare themselves for a World Cup tournament where they would be considered as understudies to the established veterans.

As it stands, many of the seniors are battling for fitness and form, while the second-stringers are desperate for game time. Some of the selections for this Saturday’s match against Fiji are questionable, as realistic alternatives in a play-off situation, read De jongh at centre and Hougaard on the wing, are being leapfrogged by the likes of Odwa Ndungane. Why pick a player now when he’s never going to be part of your match 22 in the knockout stages?

The Boks will achieve their objective in winning the next three games, but unless they improve on the quality of their performance, they will battle to challenge the better sides in the campaign-defining play-offs. Winning will always be the priority at a World Cup, but the signs are certainly there that this Bok side could be undercooked if not overextended later in the competition.

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