Boks in good place to prevail

2012-06-16 00:00

FUNNY (peculiar) how a simple old rugby Test match which seemed so straightforward could prompt such divergent views on just who was the bully and who was bullied.

The Springboks, the game safe, went to sleep after the final hooter at King’s Park last Saturday, leaked a try and the English lost by only five points (22-17).

Many in the English camp saw this fightback as a moral victory, while others believed that the Boks, dominant in the second half, were 20 to 30 points better than the tourists.

England coach Stuart Lancaster conceded that the Boks had taken total charge of the third quarter, but insisted his team could still have emerged with a win.

His vocal hooker Dylan Hartley was even more outspoken.

“We have shown we can do it. We should have won,” he said, overlooking the Boks’ second-half superiority when he and the England pack went into full retreat for long periods.

True, the English forwards did stand up impressively in the first half when they had the better of the breakdowns and placed the disjointed Springboks under intense pressure. But the mood and tempo of the game changed in the second half when the English were pinned in their own territory.

“I think we put down a statement,” Hartley said, “and I would like to think they [the Boks] will have a bit more respect for us this week. We definitely met their physical challenge.”

Incidentally, the New Zealand-born Hartley, who is just 26, has already developed a reputation as one of the nastier characters on the international stage. Back in 2007 he was banned for 26 weeks (or over six months) after being found guilty of eye-gouging while playing for his club Northampton.

During his lengthy suspension he visited sports psychologist Steve Peter in an attempt to control his on-field behaviour, but his problems resurfaced earlier this year when he was suspended for eight weeks for biting Irish flank Stephen Ferris during the Six Nations.

He returned to action in time to gain selection for the South African tour, but England coach Lancaster said he would be laying down the law to his hooker about his discipline.

Hartley found himself again treading dangerous ground at King’s Park and he was decidedly fortunate not to be cited when making a head-high tackle and his swinging arm (a quaint euphemism for a punch) caught Bok lock Juandré Kruger across the chops.

Anyway, that’s Dylan Hartley for you and he is puffing himself up for an England win at Ellis Park today.

“We played our best rugby [at the end in Durban]. It is a statement to the Boks that we are not going away. We have proved to ourselves the first Test was there for the taking and we can beat these guys.”

A couple of the leading UK rugby writers are not so sure.

Stephen Jones, who rarely has a decent word to say about Springbok rugby, says that England were soundly beaten in Durban.

“The Test was lost by a margin that is not remotely reflective of the scoreboard,” he wrote in the London Sunday Times.

“To their credit, England never caved in, and at least their taking of chances was good because they scored with each of their scattered visits in the second half to South African territory. Although you have to say that had their opponents done the same, the score could have been in the hundreds.

“This was a superior South African team merely beginning to find their way into the new season. A team with at least 40 more points in them.”

Jones did have a snipe at the Boks — “had they played the New Zealand team on this form and at this doddering pace, they could easily have lost by 50”.

But there was praise too.

“Juandré Kruger and Marcell Coetzee were marvellous new additions upfront, and Willem Alberts was probably the player of the match on the flank.”

Stuart Barnes, the former England flyhalf, television commentator and Sunday Times columnist, is convinced England have to risk everything on playing an attacking game to win at Ellis Park.

“In the second half [in Durban], England were simply overpowered. No other word will do. If they think they can level the series by stopping the Springboks at source, they are living in dreamland.

“This is a young England squad and the callow nature of the team is obvious. That is not to say they cannot win in Johannesburg, but to do so, they must gamble. England must change their mentality. They must be more concerned with creating opportunities than negating the Springboks.

“England can wait to be ground down or they can counterattack their way back into the series,” says Barnes. “What appears a gamble is, in fact, the only sane choice.”

Eddie Butler in the Guardian praises the “abrasive thrust of Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis and the new wing forward Marcell Coetzee”.

Robert Kitson, in the same newspaper, said the final score flattered England.

“South Africa were rusty and fitful, yet still managed a victory that was reeled in more comfortably than the final scoreline might suggest.

“They have now won the past eight games between the countries and will push on into double figures this month unless the tourists sharpen up quickly … the Springboks have a sniff of blood.”

Mick Cleary of the Daily Telegraph agreed with his colleagues: “South Africa is different — edgy, harsh and dangerous. And that’s just its rugby. The country itself is beautiful, vivid and varied.

“The rugby is monochrome: mean, brutal, one-dimensional but effective. England were pounded by wave after wave of green shirts.”

And so to Ellis Park today. England are preparing to attack and Morné Steyn will kick the ball vast distances, but the mood and flow of the game will be decided by another brutal battle at forward. The Springboks, at altitude, sharper and better prepared than they were a week back, should prevail … in spite of Dylan Hartley’s fiery exhortations.

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