Boks’ defence of Webb Ellis Cup begins in earnest

2011-01-02 12:09

Between now and September 11, when the Springboks begin the defence of their Rugby World Cup title in New Zealand, long columns will be devoted to their chances of becoming the first in rugby history to successfully retain the Webb Ellis Cup.

The airwaves, too, will be dominated by hours of speculation about whether Peter de Villiers is the right man for the job, whether captain John Smit will win back his place from Bismarck du Plessis and whether the mighty All Blacks will finally end their 24-year absence from the winners’ podium.

With just 36 weeks until the Springboks take on Wales, any Bok fan nursing a babbelas ­today will be quickly sobered up by the realisation that, given the Boks’ dismal season just past, 252 days is very little time in which to put things right.

Under De Villiers, the Springboks have played 42 matches over the past three years and won 25 of them. However, the team goes into a World Cup year having lost 11 of their past 20 matches and, most concerning of all, they are faced with a fixture list that promises little in the way of opportunities.

The Boks will play just four Tests this year – home and away against New Zealand and Australia respectively in a Tri-Nations event shortened to accommodate the World Cup – before setting off to defend their title.

South Africa will play the Wallabies in Sydney on July 23, followed by the All Blacks a week later in Wellington – venue of their opening World Cup fixture – and it seems likely that De Villiers will follow former coach Jake White’s blueprint by resting his big guns for the away trip.

White shrugged off criticism when, just weeks before the 2007 World Cup, he sent a weakened Bok team overseas for that year’s Tri-Nations.

Despite losing both matches, the coach had the last laugh when his side, restored to full strength, lifted the World Cup – and De Villiers looks set to follow suit.

The only problem for the under-fire coach is that it would leave him with only two Tests – against Australia on August 13 in Durban and New Zealand seven days later in Port Elizabeth – to play the team he would have in mind, Wales.

De Villiers will argue that his players know each other well enough to slot in seamlessly when the big moment arrives – and he is probably correct.

But one thing he will not be able to escape is the risk of injury to his frontline stars, especially in what will undoubtedly be yet another highly physical Springbok-All Black Test, just three weeks before the World Cup.

But injuries are part and parcel of rugby and to date no sport scientist has yet developed a foolproof way to avoid them.

And thanks to an ever lengthening fixture list, the risk is only ever increasing: the expanded Super 15 kicks off next month and doesn’t end until the Tri-Nations.

For any Bok hopeful dreaming of playing in a World Cup, that means negotiating a 24-match minefield and dodging an equal number of injury bullets.

And then there are still the playoffs ... For any Bok fan worth his salt, the mere thought is enough to cure a New Year’s babalas.

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