A WEEK is an age in Springbok rugby.

2011-09-19 00:00

Last Monday, in the wake of a fortunate and patchy win over Wales and with an injury list which appeared to be growing by the hour, the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup campaign was stuttering.

The Boks appeared tactically vulnerable as senior players battled rustiness and creaking joints while plans were being made for injured veteran lock Bakkies Botha to be sent home.

But here we are a week later and the smile is back on the face of South African rugby after the Springboks showed a dramatic improvement in whipping the Fijians 49-3.

The replacements underlined the depth in the squad, Bakkies not only miraculously recovered, but he played 40 minutes of rugby, and all the senior players revealed glimpses of their old form.

The Springboks were also transformed tactically, surprising friend and foe as their mix of power, strong defence and willingness to attack produced a lopsided 6-0 try count.

The Springboks are certainly not the finished article as both captain John Smit and coach Peter de Villiers have been quick to emphasise.

They missed far too many first-time tackles and there were times when they fiddled about deep in their half, while they also allowed the Fijians to counter-attack off several loose kicks.

Smit said it was an improvement rather than a breakthrough performance and the emphasis is on building each week.

“I wouldn’t have given us a good mark after the Welsh Test, but we controlled this Test and played on our own terms.”

Smit said he was more chuffed that the Boks had prevented Fiji from crossing their line than he was with his team’s six tries.

He told reporters that the quiet confidence that had been a feature of their RWC triumph in France in 2007 was starting to surface in the squad.

De Villiers was also keeping his head out of the clouds, but said he was pleased with the direct approach of the Boks.

“But we haven’t ticked all our boxes,’ he said. “The first 20 minutes belonged to them. We missed some tackles and that gave them momentum. We must be more ruthless there.”

What was encouraging was that this victory was a complete 15-man effort. The improvement in the form of JP Pietersen, Fourie du Preez, John Smit, the rampaging Danie Rossouw and Pierre Spies was significant, while the additions to the starting line-up, Pat Lambie, the typically busy Odwa Ndunagne, Bakkies Botha and Gurthro Steenkamp were all promiment in the win.

Flanks Schalk Burger and Heinrich Rossouw and Frans Steyn, at centre, simply picked up where they had left off against Wales.

Indeed, the selection of Lambie at fullback and Frans Steyn at inside centre, where he played in the 2007 rugby World Cup, certainly added width and variety to the Springbok defence and the selection of Jean de Villiers, once fit, in midfield may not be straightforward.

The impact made by the replacements was not as dramatic as it had been against Wales because the Boks had this game under wraps in the second half, but the exciting, elusive Francois Hougaard, coming in on the wing, is in compelling form.

The Boks, after the Welsh Test, lost Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Butch James and Johann Muller to injury, but yesterday team doctor Craig Roberts confirmed no new injuries.

Concerns that lock Bakkies Botha had been replaced because of his Achilles tendon proved unfounded. “The plan with Bakkies was always for him to play 40 minutes, and then bring Willem Alberts on after half-time,” Roberts said.

He said an assessment of Matfield and the other injured players will be made at tomorrow’s training session.

“But Victor has done really well, He did a lot of intensive rehabilitation last week and that is what he really needed to do.”

While Smit was sensibly playing down the win, Fijian captain Deacon Manu did not hold back.

“It is a fantastic Springbok side. In my opinion it’s a better side than four years ago,” Manu said. “It was a difficult game and South Africa showed why they are world champions. They’re going to be one of the teams to beat, if not the team to beat this year.”

But the job has already become more difficult following Ireland’s upset victory over Wallabies. Now, if they are to advance to the final, the Boks will almost certainly have to beat Australia (and not Ireland) in the quarter-finals and then the All Blacks in the semi-finals a week later.

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