SA sport has lost its mojo

2013-10-12 00:00

THERE are many reasons for loving Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, but it may be for his coining of the phrase the “Rainbow Nation” that he will be remembered longest.

It was these three words that encapsulated the bright and colourful hope of the new South Africa after the dark days of apartheid. South Africans were free at last to embrace an optimistic future under the guidance of an adored leader in their beautiful and bountiful land.

Sadly and unsurely, however, the bright promises have eluded the touch of the many who were once so hopeful. We are all familiar with the litany of waste, corruption and mismanagement that is dragging the country backwards, even as most of its neighbours are moving in the opposite direction.

It is too soon to talk of widespread disillusionment because the glass is still more than half full for many South Africans, but it is impossible to ignore the growing tide of pessimism that is threatening to drown the vision of Tutu.

Even our athletes, many of whom have been immune from the travails of the beloved country, no longer seem to strut the world with the confidence that once accompanied their steps. We are aware that tides change, and hope is a robust seed, but this has not been a good year for South African sport.

The past weekend seemed to confirm, on the sports fields, the unease of spirit that has drifted across the country. The encounter with New Zealand at Ellis Park was hoped to call a halt to a long period of domination by the All Blacks over the Springboks. Instead, it confirmed that, even at South Africa’s fortress in the sky, Richie McCaw’s men have the skills and trust in each other to put nearly 40 points past the Boks.

It was a cracking match in which the Springboks played their part in producing the most compelling rugby spectacle since the final of the 1995 World Cup. It should also be said that Heyneke Meyer’s men were probably thrown off plan by their desire to score the four tries that they needed to have a chance to win the Rugby Championship.

I think that most of us would have settled for second place after a narrow and low-scoring win against the team who have lost just one of their past 30 matches. The infamous red card at Auckland and the failure the previous week to secure a bonus point against Australia should not have derailed the Springboks from playing the only game plan that gave them a cat in hell’s chance of beating the All Blacks.

The Springboks’ tactics last week suited the All Blacks perfectly, as they have a genius for converting opposition mistakes into seven points.

With time running out in the first half, it was madness for the Boks to run the ball from their 22-metre line. One turnover, three phases and 60 seconds later, they were lining up under the posts watching Aaron Cruden knock over a conversion.

Their lead and confidence had been surrendered. Had they gone into the break ahead on the board, with the All Blacks still needing two tries to win the trophy, they might have had a chance if they had been able to revert to playing the kind of rugby that the Boks play best.

As it was, they found themselves chasing the match in the second half and the All Blacks had fun playing the kind of rugby at which they excel. It was marvellous to watch if you were an uitlander, but dispiriting for South Africans.

Meyer, who has done much right this year, then made a couple of tactical substitutions that defied comprehension and probably pushed the Du Plessis brothers ever closer into playing their rugby in France. Let’s allow him the mistake of being seduced into believing the Boks could win the Championship by playing fast and loose, but let’s hope that he now understands that his route to beating the All Blacks does not lie in playing them at their own game.

Then we had the golf! I have written before that this has not been a vintage year for our golfers. Our best players have appeared diffident and anxious. Gone is the swagger and confidence that enabled them to haul in a number of major titles. The determination of Gary Player is a lost legacy.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the collapse of Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen in their foursomes match on the ultimate morning of the Presidents Cup. With six holes to play, they surrendered a four-hole lead with a string of bogeys and one double bogey. In doing so, they all but lost any realistic hope the Internationals may have had in defeating the U.S. It was choking on an epic scale.

After a shaky start, Ernie Els had a reasonable match under the trying damp conditions for a 40-something golfer, but neither Brandon Grace nor Richard Sterne secured as much as half a point for their team. They were the only golfers to leave the contest with a bagel for their efforts. In fact, the five South Africans in the team contributed just four points in the double round of four-ball and foursome matches, a poor return by any standards.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the malaise gripping South Africa is beginning to have an effect on the playing fields? Unease and confidence are not comfortable bedfellows for sports people. The prestige of a country will nearly always affect the equilibrium of its athletes.

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