Reflecting on a dismal weekend for South African sport

2011-10-15 00:00

LAST weekend South African teams played two important matches in two major tournaments. Both ended badly, a fact obvious as the muddied oafs trooped forlornly from the field, but not as the misinformed leather kickers danced a jig.

On both occasions apologists blamed the calamity upon outside forces, the rules and the ref. But one fact stands out. Between them Bafana Bafana and the Boks did not score a single goal or try, not in about 175 minutes of endeavour. That is the crux of the matter and until it is confronted the misery will continue.

As far as the Boks were concerned the complaints had begun long before half-time. Indeed the TV commentators talked about little else at the interval and even during play. It is weak thinking.

Recently retailers grizzling about the impact of Internet sales were told to stop whining and start winning. It is not a bad philosophy.

Consider the complaints about David Pocock. He was caught on camera pinching the ball on three or four occasions. Of course ball thieves are expert at carrying out their work out of sight. Burglars are stealthy.

Pocock and company know where the ref is standing and that he cannot penalise what he does not see. Although his contribution was important, Pocock’s work needs to be put in context.

Apparently South Africa completed 10 sets of five or more possessions and numerous others of shorter duration. Pocock entered about 70 breakdowns and pinched the ball a handful of times. Overall the Wallabies forced nine turnovers to the five achieved by their opponents, an unsurprising statistic considering the Boks had most of the ball.

Now comes a critical point. What did the Boks do with the ball when they had it? South Africa spent 76% of the match in their opponents’ half and still did not break through. Moreover, wasn’t Pocock all the more effective because the Boks’ own ball grabber was forced to leave the field after 20 minutes? Don’t the All Blacks also have a gifted ball snatcher and didn’t they make him captain?

Not to labour the point, but the focus on Pocock’s breaches distracts attention from other failings in the team, and from the valour displayed by the victors. On their return the Boks were hailed as betrayed heroes and the coaches were praised. Yet these same people waited for 50 minutes before sending the game’s greatest hooker on to the field. Experts agree that Bismark du Plessis’s fierce interventions changed the mood of the match. Could the Boks really afford to hold him back?

The age of the Boks has also been overlooked in the furore. The Wallabies fielded 10 players about or under 23. Wales also played 10 players under 23 and beat an Irish outfit with 10 players over 29. Both the Welsh and the Wallabies produced high-energy performances based on courageous defence and sudden, speedy attacks. Wales played superbly, but the Aussies were held back by a poor display from their stand-off. It’s a sobering thought that the Boks managed to lose despite Quade Cooper’s weak performance.

South Africa relied on 18 members of the triumphant 2007 RWC side. Frankly it smacked of appeasement. Eyewitnesses report that the Bok forwards were slow to lineouts after tiring passages of play and suggest injuries were feigned to prolong breaks. Regardless, they won most of the lineouts, had most of the ball, played much of the match near the Australian line and did not once cross it legally. Pocock and Bryce Lawrence were partly to blame, but only partly.

As for Bafana, the sight of the players celebrating after securing a scoreless home draw against Sierra Leone told the story. Admittedly the sole purpose of qualifying matches is to qualify, but even so relief might have been a more appropriate response.

Two points emerged from the debacle. Bafana’s attack is well nigh impotent, with Tshabalala the only forward capable of beating his man and producing some spark. Repeatedly the ball was moved nicely towards the edge of the penalty area only for the team to run out of ideas. Repeatedly bad decisions were taken, with wayward passes spoiling promising moves.

Secondly, it is the height of folly for any administration in any sport not to know the rules. Indeed it is rank amateurism. Safa’s appeal is a waste of time because the rules are clear. Presumably no one read them. Heads should roll.

Let’s hope the cricketers make a better fist of it this summer, on the field and off it.

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