World champions plunge to new lows, as coach asks for more time

2008-08-25 00:00

JUST 10 months ago, the Springboks were the toast of the rugby world; on Saturday, the World Cup champions were booed off the field at King's Park, their Tri-Nations dream in tatters, after they were emphatically thumped 27-15 by the Wallabies.

In Paris, back in October, the Boks were composed, well-drilled, united, disciplined and played to their strengths in winning the Webb Ellis Trophy. On Saturday, and as they were against the All Blacks a week before, the South Africans were frantic and disorganised, lacking cohesion, direction and the basic skills to play an expansive game forced on them by their new coach.

Nearly 50 000 spectators arrived at King's Park expecting to see the Boks revive their Tri-Nations challenge with another win at home against the Australians. But the Boks, and coach Peter de Villiers, continued to make all the wrong kind of history following their 19-0 loss to the All Blacks at Newlands. Never before have the Boks lost two successive home Tri-Nations games, while the Australians, under new coach Robbie Deans and rebuilding, picked up their first win in South Africa since 2000.

"It has been a long time between drinks," satisfied captain Stirling Mortlock remarked.

The South Africans have now lost four of their five Tri-Nations Tests. Leaving the field, heads bowed, they had to accept the crowd's slings and arrows, but it is the coaching staff who must accept a major share of responsibility. The players were massively committed with Bismarck du Plessis, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Andries Bekker, Beast Mtawarira and Butch James launching themselves into tackle after tackle.

Even the Wallabies, who were expecting the most bruising of contests, were astonished at the ferocity of the contest.

"Our coaching staff on the touchline could not believe the physicality of the Springboks," said Deans later, "and the carnage in our dressing-room after the game bore this out.

"The Boks were desperate and, in the context of that, I'm delighted that we came away with a win even if we were by no means perfect."

There is no question that the Springboks have the individual talent spread throughout the team to match anyone in the world, and this added to the frustration of the crowd and, no doubt, the television viewers.

The All Blacks and the Wallabies are by no means world-beaters, but they have easily seen off the world champions in their backyard.

Time and again, as happened against the All Blacks last weekend, the gainline was breached - by Jean de Villiers, JP Pietersen, Fourie du Preez or Juan Smith - but the moves died because the Boks lacked close support, the skills in off-loading and precision and numbers at the breakdown.

The new game plan might be more palatable if we were convinced that the players and coaches were all singing from the same hymn sheet. But the evidence suggests this is not the case. On the eve of the Test, one of the management staff said the Boks were prepared to "win ugly" and senior players suggested a more structured game plan. In contrast, head coach De Villiers was adamant that there would continue to be an extravagant, expansive approach to the Test.

De Villiers, at the post-match media conference, said he "was happy" with the Boks' improvement in contesting at the tackle, adding that he did not think it was a problem, while moments later Matfield highlighted the "breakdown and our execution" as the reasons for the defeat.

De Villiers also said certain players, like Jean de Villiers, Matfield and Butch James, were "flat after too much rugby", but said he would be having "one-on-ones" with team members during the week. He then added, mysteriously, that he would be looking for some "honesty" from the players.

Both De Villiers and Matfield said their booing by the crowd was understandable.

"We are the world champions and we cannot afford to lose two in a row. It's unacceptable to play like that," Matfield said.

De Villiers said the crowd has every right to be unhappy.

"We are a proud people and they want to back a winning side. We never go out there to lose on purpose, but it's a new playing style I'm trying to introduce."

De Villiers called on the South African public to show patience as he goes about stamping his game on the Bok team. Rome, he added, was not built in a day.

Rugby folk would argue that the world rugby champions should not be dismantled in a few short weeks.

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