Bad time for top dog’s walkies

2010-09-11 00:00

THE schizophrenic Springboks and their ineffectual coaching staff have left the South African rugby public in a state of bewilderment after their ugly, badly planned and totally unconvincing Tri-Nations campaign.

Their long tale of defeat, limp defence, yellow cards and lame excuses was only occasionally punctuated by snatches of sublime rugby, and certainly the Springboks are in a far worse state now than they were when they set out for New Zealand two months ago to defend their Tri-Nations title.

What is adding to the anger of the South African rugby public is that the country’s rich pool of talent, well stocked with experienced and emerging players, is being wasted.

The Super 14 final, between two South African teams (the Bulls and Stormers) at the end of May, underlined both the depth in the country and the form of the leading players, while victories over Wales and France on the eve of the Tri-Nations appeared to confirm the healthy state of Bok rugby.

But the Springboks have since failed miserably and even those closest to the team cannot agree on the reasons for the rapid decline. This has added to the frustration of the supporters who are desperate for simple, straightforward answers to South Africa’s rugby problems.

A scapegoat is always handy in such hard times and certainly coach Peter de Villiers appears to be doing his level best to fill that role.

At a time when Springbok rugby has needed calm, organised leadership, clear direction, sound coaching and a steadying hand, the man in charge has gone walkabout.

His confused and confusing ramblings resulted in him being labelled a clown in Australia and twice during the Tri-Nations he has made public statements which have resulted in his embarrassed bosses calling him to disciplinary hearings.

In contrast, former Bok coach Nick Mallett took a quick pop at Test ticket prices and was gone. (Mind you, he should have been fired a year earlier for dropping his captain Gary Teichmann ahead of the 1999 World Cup).

De Villiers has always led with his mouth, but five losses in six Tests have compounded his problems this year. The coach, often difficult to understand off the field, has now also lost credibility on it.

De Villiers’s idiosyncracies were an entertaining sideshow while the Boks were winning well last year, but in the darkness of defeat these past months his ill-conceived statements have added to the pressure on him and his players. While he has attempted to place a positive spin on the beaten Boks, it has been left to his captain , John Smit, and vice-captain Victor Matfield to provide the common sense.

De Villiers should ultimately be judged on what happens on the field and certainly the 2010 Springboks have looked an ineffectively coached, poorly prepared and badly conditioned team.

His coaching staff must take some of the blame, and perhaps this is where the axe will fall, but the players have looked tired, listless and unable to perform for the full 80 minutes. The story from Durban is that Springboks returning to John Plumtree’s squad cannot match the fitness and sharpness of the Sharks.

Conditioning and fatigue have played a role, but how on earth do you explain away the dreadful defensive effort that has seen 22 tries leaked in six Tests and 12 from the three played in South Africa?

And how do you explain the Jekyll and Hyde performances of Pretoria and Bloemfontein when the Boks only really started playing — and tackling — in the second half.

They trailed 21-7 to the Wallabies after 10 minutes at Loftus and then outscored the tourists 37-10 for a 44-31 win; in Bloemfontein the Boks were 31-6 down, but responded by running up 33 points to the Wallabies’ 10 before losing 41-39 to the last kick.

The first half showings highlighted the Boks’ lack of organisation, intensity and commitment; the second-half revivals suggest that the talent and skill remain if properly harnessed.

The challenge is to ensure the players are fit, fresh, properly conditioned and in form for the World Cup in exactly a year’s time.

It is generally accepted that the senior, experienced, World Cup-winning players have had too much say in running the show and their rugby, discipline and conditioning have suffered.

The Boks’ failures have also brought out Jake White on his charger. The supreme opportunist and 2007 World Cup-winning coach has offered to rescue Springbok rugby ahead of the World Cup.

White has a selective memory. He was in an almost identical position exactly a year before the World Cup in France. In 2006, the Springboks lost at home to France and the World XV and they finished last in the Tri-Nations, suffering a record-breaking 49-0 loss to Australia in Brisbane and a home defeat to the All Blacks in Pretoria.

There were strident calls for White’s head — not for the first time — but he received the support of influential South African officials, held on to his job and took the Boks to their World Cup triumph a year later.

Now, instead of offering De Villiers some support and understanding, White has popped up again, waving his CV and looking for a job.

He should not hold his breath. Following his departure after the 2007 World Cup, White has burned so many bridges, and annoyed so many SA Rugby officials, that his kind offer is certain to be snubbed.

Unless De Villiers again messes his own doorstep — and you would not bet against that — he will stay on as coach until the World Cup. But he clearly needs expert help with a defence coach a priority.

Kurtley Beale’s last-gasp penalty in Bloem was a galling end to an extraordinary and stirring Springbok fightback, but the Wallaby has done South African rugby a favour.

Victory would have brought relief and papered over the yawning cracks in Springbok rugby; another jolting defeat, one hopes, has concentrated minds wonderfully on what must be done if South Africa is to be a force at the World Cup.

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