Selection will be key for weary Springboks to salvage European tour

2009-11-16 00:00

SELECTION will be key to the Springboks’ attempts to drag something positive from the wreckage of their European tour.

The Springboks have lost their opening two games — to Leicester and France — and coach Peter de Villiers now has to nurse his tired and battered troops through the final fortnight of a 10-month season.

While the South African XV, humbled by Leicester last week, was very much a second-string outfit, De Villiers fielded his strongest available Test side against France and they were badly bullied by their hosts in losing 20-13.

What is surprising is that the French victory took so many by surprise. The Springboks have a strong, talented team, but they are not good enough to simply arrive at a wet, damp Toulouse ground, at the end of a gruelling year of rugby, and knock over a bubbling, buoyant French side. It needed something special from the world champions, but mentally and physically they were not up to the challenge.

De Villiers now has the distraction of tomorrow night’s game against Saracens, but it will be the Tests against Italy on Saturday and the big one, against Six Nations champions Ireland a week later, which will be occupying his mind.

It is clear that several senior players, among them Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and John Smit, are in desperate need of a break, while others, like flank Schalk Burger, are nursing injuries.

Even those with young legs are hurting. Loosehead Tendai Mtawarira is no longer the beast who took on the British Lions, while Ryan Kankowski, who flourishes in open spaces and on hard grounds, was painfully exposed in the gloom of Toulouse where he had to play in the face of the fired-up, abrasive opposition.

De Villiers would surely want to freshen up a number of his senior players for Ireland by resting them before the Dublin Test, but he cannot take Italy lightly. The Italians, who scrummed strongly — and that will concern the Boks — gave the All Blacks a rough ride on Saturday and conceded only one try in their 20-6 defeat. They will be up for the Springbok challenge and, like the French, they will have a passionate crowd behind them.

While the Springboks are licking gaping wounds, the French are generously adding salt.

French coach Marc Lievremont has poured scorn on the Springbok scrum. He said his team’s victory was based on their scrummaging and added, in what he considered a damning insult, that the Boks are weaker than Australia in that area.

“South Africa’s forwards were heavier than ours, but they were even less vicious than Australia,” Lievremont said.

France prop Fabien Barcella said that “for once it’s good to see that it’s not us who are bleeding, but our opponents” after Springbok locks Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield both had to leave the field for treatment in the first quarter.

Flank Heinrich Brüssow was also on the receiving end and has no memory of the opening quarter after taking a blow.

“I don’t know what happened, but I took a strange knock,” Brüssow said, choosing his words carefully.

“For a moment, I thought I was at an airport or somewhere. But I felt okay very quickly so I played on.”

And just as well as the Free State flank was easily the Boks’ best player, denying the French time and again at the breakdown and in making critical tackles in the closing quarter.

“It was the most physical game in terms of the rucks that I’ve ever played in. I wasn’t tired from running, but I was from the physical battle at the rucks because they had so much passion and just kept coming for 80 minutes,” he said.

The Springboks’ problem was that they were arriving at the breakdown in dribs and drabs while the French went hunting as a pack.

Springbok lock Victor Matfield said his team had few complaints about the loss.

“They had more intensity than us, they were one second quicker to things than us,” said Matfield.

“They came out firing and the intensity was very high. Physicality is part of the game and for most of the time, the guys who win that battle win the game.

“When it’s three guys hitting one guy, it makes it difficult, and that’s what they did.”

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