SA flourish only to flop

2009-06-27 00:00

CAPTAIN John Smit has obviously had to tapdance around the issue, but every other Springbok supporter knows the first Test against the Lions in Durban last Saturday was won in spite of the South African coaches and not because of them.

The Springboks were ahead 26-7 going into the last quarter and, while they were tiring, they were still in control. The Springboks had only to add the finishing touches, slow up the game, play with composure and keep the ball in hand, to inflict a massively damaging and demoralising defeat on the British Lions.

Instead they were transformed into a jittery, panicky and disorganised outfit, wildly booting away possession, missing tackles and finally hanging on desperately for a five-point win. The British Lions, at one stage facing humiliation, emerged with their heads high, narrowly beaten but confident they have the momentum and attacking game to beat the world champions in today’s second Test at Loftus. The Lions had been played back into the series instead of out of it.

Of course, De Villiers’s massed substitutions were not the only reason for the Boks’ late decline. Porous defence, along with fatigue, rustiness and lack of match practice, played a role, but certainly the late comings and goings of senior players did nothing to settle the team or calm the players.

Whether the decision to clear the bench came from the head coach or was on the advice of his assistants, Dick Muir and Gary Gold, is not clear, but De Villiers has not attempted to dodge the flak.

The Bok coaches, instead of closing down the game, thought they would end with a flourish. They removed just under half the team (seven players), including the captain (Smit), the principal decision-maker (Fourie du Preez) and the heart of the scrum, in clearing the bench between the 55th and 70th minutes.

The remaining players were not only tiring, but were totally disrupted by change and their problems were compounded when flyhalf Ruan Pienaar also departed to have treatment for a cut. Morne Steyn, who, incidentally, probably saved the Test with one superb smothering tackle, played flyhalf and fullback during his short stay. Frans Steyn went from fullback to centre; Adi Jacobs shifted to inside centre; Ricky Januarie, lacking in form and confidence, was at scrumhalf; the front-row had been revamped — Bakkies was gone and Heinrich Brussow, one of the few making his tackles, was replaced. It was a circus.

There was a general acceptance that the Boks, underdone and without match practice, would have to play the Lions in the first Test with 22 players, mixing and matching if necessary to cover the lack of game time. But the way it was done, the timing of the substitutions and the decision to rest senior, influential members who were playing well and not flagging, was illogical.

Smit was not a happy camper after the Test, but he could hardly stand up and tell the world that the coaches had been pillocks. Instead, he said that the Springboks had lost concentration and composure in the second half. (The problem, of course, was that the composure was watching from the bench. Indeed, the fastest Smit moved all afternoon was when Deon Carstens went down injured and the Bok captain rushed back on to the field to settle his rattled troops).

Former Springboks coach Nick Mallett, writing in London’s Sunday Telegraph, said De Villiers had contributed to his team’s problems.

“The Springboks will reconsider their growing habit of making lots of substitutions when they think games are won,” he said.

Too many coaches simply turn to their bench by way of habit rather than only if they believe the replacement will make a positive contribution. Certainly nothing seems to have been learnt from the Super 14 final in 2007 when Muir replaced John Smit, the captain, and Percy Montgomery, the most experienced player and goalkicker, in the dying moments and the Sharks imploded to lose to the Bulls.

The good news for the Boks is that the reserve bench named for today’s second Test has reduced the likelihood of any indiscriminate substitutions.

There are only two backs among the replacements, so changes there should be minimal and one hopes scrumhalf Du Preez sees out the game because his back-up (in case of injury) is his flyhalf Ruan Pienaar. There is also only one prop on the bench so captain John Smit ought to be on the field for the full 80 minutes. (The problem, of course, is if he goes down with an injury. The Boks have too many hookers and not enough props).

Paul Hayward, writing in the Observer, said the Lions will lose today, “because the Springboks will not repeat their display of complacency when the Lions already seemed to be on the barbecue in Durban”.

The signs were not encouraging at Newlands on Tuesday night when coach Dick Muir cleared the Emerging Springbok bench at a time when they were gaining the ascendancy against the Lions and in-form players were replaced. Eventually, they squeezed out a 13-13 draw, thanks to the one astute change that saw kicker Willem de Waal brought on in the wet. But it was a game that they could have won.

One hopes, of course, that De Villiers and company have learnt from the Durban debacle and only limited and necessary changes are made today.

Flank Brussow seems certain to come on when Schalk Burger, desperately short of match practice, starts blowing, and Danie Rossouw has also shown his value as an impact player. Jaque Fourie, too, may be called on if the midfield defensive problems resurface. But, unless injury plays a part, that really should be that.

If the players are doing the job, let them finish it. Or, as the Yanks say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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