Boks are a work in progress

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day newspaper column, says Heyneke Meyer’s Boks aim to be ready by 2015 so don’t expect too much from them now.

The Pumas don’t win in South Africa – and they won’t win at Newlands on Saturday in their Rugby Championship debut.

I don’t understand the angst among so many.

I also don’t understand the resistance of so many supporters to acknowledge the massive rebuilding going on within the Springbok squad, much of it forced on Heyneke Meyer through injury and unavailability.

The short-term gain is exposure to Test rugby for youngsters who ordinarily would have been in an extended squad and whose two months of international rugby at this time of the year would have been limited to holding tackle bags against legends of the game who have won everything at every level. The long-term gain is that depth becomes a given in South Africa’s challenge to win back the World Cup in 2015.

South Africa have lost the core of a pack considered the best in the world in the past five years. Victor Matfield, unrivalled as the finest lineout exponent in the professional era, is gone. He won’t be replaced this year. His unique skills and authority in making the Springboks the most feared lineout may not be replaced for some time. Bakkies Botha is playing in France and it is a good thing in the context of 2015 because Botha could be as pivotal to the Boks as Brad Thorn was to the All Blacks’ success in 2011.

Matfield and Botha were untouchable as a lock combination for a sustained period that stretched over two World Cups. The quality of the duo was a luxury few teams have had. Currently the lineout is no weaker than the opposition but it certainly is not any stronger. Matfield spooked opposition hookers and added to the insecurities of any opposing coach. The All Blacks, in particular, struggled for consistent quality ball against the Boks and, with no guarantee that their lineout ball was their own, they often lacked the rhythm that makes the New Zealanders so difficult to stop.

Loose forwards Schalk Burger and Juan Smith are injured. Burger won’t play again this year and there are doubts whether Smith’s Achilles heel will ever accommodate the demands of Test rugby. The Boks have lost four players who ranked consistently in the top two in their respective positions for the past five years.

It is rare to have four players of such standing in one settled international team. To expect anything remotely as good in 2012 is to believe a bearded fat bloke in red enjoys a chimney entrance to every human being’s home on 25 December, even if there is no chimney.

There should be no expectation of the red-robed chimney miracle for a 20-year-old lock, a lock who spent his early provincial career as backup to Matfield and Botha, and a loose forward who made his Super Rugby debut only a year ago. This is a vastly different and massively inferior Bok team to the one that scared opponents whether playing in South Africa or abroad.

That’s the reality of the Bok pack. The situation will improve, the youngsters will mature.

The Springboks of the past five years also had the best scrumhalf playing the game, in terms of decision-making and nurturing whoever played in the Bok No 10 jersey. Fourie du Preez is of the Dan Carter mould. You knew how good they were when they played, yet you are reminded just how good they were when they no longer play.

Francois Hougaard is a fantastic rugby player, but he is not Fourie du Preez, and Morne Steyn at No 10 is a potential liability. Steyn is not a bad player and did not become a bad player in the three-Test series against England. He simply did not have Du Preez’s soothing presence on his inside.

Fullback is another position in which an individual hopefully will emerge. Currently there are possibilities but no probabilities. That’s the reality of the Boks at the moment. It is a difficult period that every side is forced to front when losing the bulk of a great team.

I would suggest the word ‘anticipation’ is a more appropriate word for the Boks. Who will come to the fore? That’s the adventure.

Come on. Let’s get real. The questions around the Boks won’t be answered in the next two to three months and neither can anyone expect Meyer’s tenure to be defined in that period.

Don’t prepare for the worst, but prepare for the Test afternoons to be stressful.

Don’t panic either, because the struggle of 2011 is not a struggle of Bok rugby but a testament to just how spoilt we were with a generation of golden players whose qualities seldom come in waves of four, five and six.