Boks get a bloody nose

2010-07-17 00:00

THERE was a time when a succession of blinkered Springbok coaches banned newspapers from their team hotel in the build-up to important Test matches.

Coaches feared that the Fourth Estate would undermine the Bok team, either by damning and deflating their players or by praising and puffing up their opponents, and they strictly enforced a no-read rule.

It was, of course, the trend at the time — if you could not beat it, you banned it — and players were cocooned in their hotel, away from all outside influences and interference.

Current Bok coach Peter de Villiers is probably regretting not taking a leaf out of that old conservative book last week when his players were geeing-up for the Tri-Nations opener against the All Blacks in Auckland.

Mentally, as the players, their coach and captain now readily concede, the Springboks were not up to the weekend challenge. And part of the problem was that, not for the first time, they believed both their press and that of the home team.

They had been told by the media all week just how jolly good they were. New Zealand players, past and present, joined in the chorus. Sean Fitzpatrick, the wily past All Black captain, even said he feared the current Springboks.

“The Springboks scare me. They are not only a top side in good form, they have depth and depth in experience.”

All Black centre Ma’a Nonu paid tribute to his opposite number.

“Wynand Olivier was the player of the Super 14. He’s a strong ball-runner and good defensively,” Nonu gushed.

Flyhalf Dan Carter popped up to highlight Morné Steyn’s qualities, All Black hooker Keven Mealamu publicly sang John Smit’s praises and so it went on.

New Zealand rugby commentators spoke in hushed tones of the Boks’ physicality and wondered how the All Blacks would match Bakkies Botha and company.

The Boks gobbled it all up … and then wobbled. Complacent, self-satisfied and with egos polished, they were easily picked off by the fired-up, smarter, better-prepared All Blacks. They appeared half-a-metre off the pace, lacked intensity and were constantly knocked backwards at the collisions.

“Our minds just weren’t in the right place,” said Smit later.

De Villiers, to his credit, did not blame travel fatigue, but the sleeping habits of the Boks are certainly open to question.

The Springbok management, to combat jet lag, allowed the players to sleep as late as they liked during the day and practices were all held late in the afternoon to accommodate them.

Bleary-eyed John Smit, shaken from his slumbers to attend one press conference, looked like he had gone 15 rounds with Auckland’s resident drunk.

Previous Springbok tour managements have attempted to combat jet lag by keeping the players awake during the day and forcing them to settle as quickly as possible into the New Zealand time zone, and the jury is still out on how best to cope with travel fatigue (and, for that matter, playing at altitude).

What is certain is that the Boks produced a tired, listless, dozy performance on the Saturday night and Smit and the players have admitted “their lights were out” during the Test.

Coach De Villiers agreed:

“We were in a comfort zone and they caught us napping.”

Smit has taken the drubbing on the chin, accepting that he had played a role in the heavy defeat as, uncharacteristically, he failed to hit his lineout jumpers.

“I need to take a lot of the blame. I just wasn’t throwing good darts in the week’s build-up and the Test.”

He says that during the Test he fell out of favour with lineout specialist Victor Matfield when he missed the target.

“He kept giving me those dirty looks which are similar to the ones my wife gives me when I come home a bit late.”

The Springboks also failed tactically. Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was missed and the Boks’ kicking was inaccurate. And because the chase was poor, the All Blacks had space and time to counter-attack.

Smit would not concede that the game plan was wrong, but said the Boks failed because their application was poor.

“Our tactics were not the biggest problem. I think if you kick the ball away, it’s only away if you don’t go and fetch it.”

What is a concern ahead of today’s Test is that no unforced changes were made to the team, and one hopes that the player-driven system of the current Boks does not stretch to selection.

Former Walllaby coach Bob Dwyer believes the Boks “have a problem with selection”.

“Surely there is a better three-quarter line in South Africa than the one chosen,” he says.

Breaking up the world-class midfield pairing of Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie, and fielding the former on the wing are curious and unnecessary risks. Surely a backline of fullback Gio Aplon, wings Francois Hougaard and Bryan Habana, a Fourie-De Villiers midfield, with Ruan Pienaar partnering Morné Steyn at halfback, would offer the Boks more on attack and defence.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the head-butting Bakkies Botha. This time there was no support from his angry captain and team-mates for his loutish behaviour.

Even the taciturn former Bok prop, Os du Randt, has offered advice.

“Bakkies must work hard on the psychological aspect of his game, programme his brain and remove those instinctive moments,” says Du Randt. “He knows he was an idiot, but it was an instinctive reaction because he’s such an aggressive player. He must rid himself of the rage.”

Quite right. First, Bakkies should stop believing his own press and, second, he should join Julius Malema at his anger management classes.

The Boks, settled into a sleeping routine and, shaken from their complacency, will surely be far more competitive today.

Another abject failure and the angry rugby public will be giving the Boks far more than just that dirty look that their unhappy hooker gets from his wife — and Matfield — when things go wrong.

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