Mind Games: Bok triple-XL myth endures

2014-06-09 10:00

It is one of the oldest myths in rugby and still it endures – the fable about how big South African rugby players are.

Overseas commentators are fond of hyping up the scarcely believable size of South African players, especially the forwards.

Reading up on the Welsh rugby team, who have arrived here for their three-match tour that starts with a game against the EP Kings on Tuesday, the fiction is again being peddled.

Welsh readers have been alerted to the perils their boys face in having to take on these giants of the veld.

Harping on about the XXXL size of South Africa’s players used to irritate Nick Mallett as far back as 2000 when he was the coach – and one of the reasons was that it’s simply not true.

It’s a piece of hyperbole New Zealanders are also fond of emphasising, but in the professional era the fact is that players of other nations are as big, if not bigger, than the Springboks.

They’re all big these days and, in the Welsh team that will play the Boks in Durban on Saturday and in Nelspruit the following weekend, Victor Matfield’s men may well be going up against one of the biggest sides in world rugby.

Certainly, in the backs there could be some justification for ranting about giant dragons spewing fire.

South Africa’s new cap, Sevens speedster Cornal Hendricks, who has rocketed into the test line-up in spite of not commanding a regular starting place in the Cheetahs this season, will be up against one of the meanest, toughest, hardest-to-bring-down men in rugby in George North (1.93m/108kg).

With Bryan Habana in his customary No 11 jersey, Hendricks will have to mark an opponent a few centimetres taller than him, but a massive 18kg heavier.

Habana’s likely marker, Alex Cuthbert (1.98m/106kgs), is even bigger while scrum half Mike Phillips (1.91m/101kgs) is probably the biggest No 9 in the world game. The rest, Jonathan Davies (1.85m/104kgs), James Hook (1.83m/96kgs) and the fearsome battering ram of centre Jamie Roberts (1.93m/110kgs) will not require much motivation to answer coach Warren Gatland’s exhortations of “be physical, get in their faces”.

Unfortunately, the bigger-is-better syndrome lingers on in South African rugby (Heyneke Meyer is a disciple) and we could be in for more bash, batter and boot.

The tours by Wales and Scotland, who’ll play the Boks in Port Elizabeth on June 28, yet again emphasise the lunacy of the current international season. The Welsh will be without eight of their regulars, including British Lions skipper Sam Warburton and points machine Leigh Halfpenny, having to take on tough opponents at the end of a taxing northern hemisphere season. They should far rather be tanning on a beach.

The Springboks will love getting back into the green-and-gold but their bodies will be showing the effects of a couple of months of Super Rugby battering, and I suspect it might show in the quality of the matches.

Yet again, South African fans have drawn the short straw in terms of entertainment.

Last season, the Aussies had the Lions on tour and the Kiwis the French. We had to make do with Scotland, Italy and Samoa. This year, with all due respect to the World XV, Wales and Scotland, New Zealand and Australia have proper three-test series against, respectively, England and France.

It seems our officials were “out to lunch” when it came to divvying up the fixtures.

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