Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok fullback THINUS DELPORT talks of South Africa’s breakout star of the year, the Boks’ Rugby Championship chances and previews the final in Christchurch on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How do the Lions pull off ‘mission impossible’ in Christchurch?
Thinus Delport: It’s a very difficult task for the Lions to travel to New Zealand and win the Super Rugby title. However, Swys de Bruin is correct in saying that if they don’t believe they can win the final, they shouldn’t get off the plane. The psychological side of the game is as important as the physiological. It’s about attuning your mental preparation as well as your circadian rhythm. It’s close to ‘mission impossible’ for the Lions, but it’s a final and anything can happen. It’s evident that there is a great spirit within the Lions side and the players have forged a real brotherhood - it can be seen in the way the players work hard for each other on scramble defence and how they celebrate as a team collective when a try is scored. However, the Crusaders are a very dominant force in Super Rugby at the moment. The defending champions are looking highly confident, possesses a really good team culture under coach Scott Robertson and the way they defend stifles any attacking opportunities. If the Lions can stay calm and keep 15 players on the field for 80 minutes, they can compete. But when a team has doubts, as soon as something goes wrong, that is when a confident and well-balanced side like the Crusaders will apply the pressure. The Lions have shown in the past that they can travel to New Zealand and turn over Kiwi sides, so they must believe.
Sport24 asked: Is the current Super format fair or must we go back to the future?
Thinus Delport: I personally feel the Super 12 format, which I was a part of, worked more fluidly than the current competition structure. It really tested the quality of players in the respective countries. The New Zealanders can moan about the Lions losing more matches than the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders and yet finishing higher on the combined log standings. However, to counter-balance the argument it will always be tough on South African sides having to travel to Australasia. It’s a logistical problem, which organisers haven’t been able to solve since the inception of Super Rugby. There is always going to be something that doesn’t sit right with someone, but I thought Super 12 was a really strong format. However, in the modern professional era it’s about the expansion of rugby in other areas of the world... The other aspect of it is the local derbies. I feel there could be some changes made there. I would be in favour of more cross-conference matches, as there are too many local derbies. The attendance figures across all the competing countries is both alarming and disappointing. Maybe it’s time for total change and to look at other avenues to bring back the interest levels for the South African rugby public. With the global calendar coming into effect in 2020, and myself living in the UK, I would certainly like to see more South African teams competing in the north. There are positives associated with SA rugby aligning with the northern hemisphere, notably from a logistical and financial perspective.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Johann Ackermann’s new pride of Lions in the UK?
Thinus Delport: Gloucester have the same colours as the Lions - red and white - and a new lion logo. I’m loving it because I can speak Afrikaans, have a braai and enjoy biltong while watching my former team in the Premiership. Ackermann had a fantastic coaching career with the Lions and has brought over that experience to Gloucester. However, this pre-season is the first time he has had the opportunity to build and recruit. It’s a massive concern that South African rugby is leaking top coaches and experienced players to overseas clubs. However, an even greater concern is the number of young players leaving South African shores. The exodus is worrying, but the number of contracted players at South African unions is bloated and unsustainable. Why are we not developing more prospects rather than having a blanket approach in terms of signing players in South Africa? If you look at the squad sizes of English Premiership clubs, it’s around 40 and that includes the academy players. In the UK, the focus is much more on smaller academies and being really astute in terms of who they contract. Succession planning and player development is much more specific, so you have to be clearer in terms of who you sign up as an academy player. The budgets South African teams are spending on players and the high number of personnel they are contracting surely has to be readdressed. The solution would be to focus on specific players they want to retain and not just sign up a whole bunch from Craven Week.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of the Springboks under Rassie Erasmus?
Thinus Delport: If we disregard the Test against Wales in Washington, which was a shambles to be honest, there were positive signs from the Test series win against England. For the first time in history against England, South Africa were underdogs at home. However, over the first two Tests South Africa smashed England, having returned to their traditional strengths. Although the series was already won, the third Test exposed a South African rugby weakness in the sense that the weather conditions had such a big influence. The Boks aren’t used to playing in wet and slower conditions and they weren’t able to assert the dominance they displayed in the first two Tests. By sending more teams to play in the northern hemisphere, it could certainly help in terms of the development of South African players’ ability to adjust to different weather conditions... In terms of the Rugby Championship, realistically the Springboks have an opportunity of finishing second this season. I feel we have seen enough from the Argentinian players to analyse them and identify their strengths and weaknesses. I foresee the Boks turning Argentina over home and away. Though the Wallabies boast some exciting players - the Australian sides’ set-piece was exposed during Super Rugby. The Boks can overturn the Wallabies at home and have an opportunity to beat them away. Ultimately, however, every Springbok wants to be measured against the All Blacks. There is a pretty strong upward curve in terms of the way the Boks are playing and where they are going, but it’s not looking realistically attainable to turn New Zealand over this year. I feel it’s a Rugby Championship too soon to defeat them.
Sport24 asked: Your expert assessment of South Africa’s back-three makeup?
Thinus Delport: The Springboks had a relatively inexperienced back three last year and, so far this season, Willie le Roux has done exceptionally well alongside two green wings. However, I thought Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi did exceptionally well against England. Dyantyi is South African rugby’s breakout star of the season. The first time I watched him in Super Rugby, I didn’t really know who the kid on the left wing for the Lions was, but that soon changed. Dyantyi possesses raw pace, but he can’t be pigeon-holed as an out-and-out paceman. He boasts good feet, strong distribution skills and the fact that he is comfortable kicking on his left foot is a bonus. He has all the skill components needed to play successfully at Test level. Nkosi also looked comfortable at international level, but it doesn’t seem he will be fit for the Rugby Championship. There are reports that JP Pietersen will come into the mix. It’s a bit like the Schalk Brits selection in terms of going with experience. I don’t know whether JP will be match-fit and up to the pace and intensity required in the Rugby Championship. He is certainly there in terms of his level of experience and would bring a lot to the side in that sense, but I’m not sure he still has the requisite top-level speed. Though the likes of Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule were hesitant at the start of their Test careers, they have had another year to grow within Super Rugby and shouldn’t just be discarded. The big debate is always about whether you bring an old-hand back or if you go with a younger player, who has shown some really good progress and Super Rugby form. I feel sorry for a player like Andries Coetzee. The 28-year-old fullback broke through during Allister Coetzee’s tenure, but this year hasn’t been afforded an opportunity at Test level. 2018 could have been a good year for him to further develop his experience at international level. He is part of a successful Lions squad and hopefully he will be afforded future chances.
Sport24 asked: Did you regret not playing more than 18 Tests for South Africa?
Thinus Delport: I think every Springbok envisages a long and illustrious career in the green and gold jersey. Personally, I would have loved to have seen more caps behind my name. However, it was an honour and privilege to have represented the Springboks and it was a childhood dream come true. I cherished every one of my 18 Tests, but unfortunately things didn’t work out for me to add to my caps. It’s unfortunate that my last match for the Springboks was the defeat against the All Blacks in the 2003 Rugby World Cup quarter-final. However, I played in six Tri-Nations matches during my Test career and the 46-40 win over the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 2000 was definitely my standout moment. I always joke with young rugby players and say: “There is one thing you have to do in your life - score a try against the All Blacks - because, if you do, doors will open.” Scoring a try against the All Blacks in front of my home crowd and beating them was a memory that will last a lifetime.
Sport24 asked: Does your heart say the Lions and your head say the Crusaders?
Thinus Delport: Yes. I will definitely be showing all my support for the Lions, but it’s going to be tough. I will be in the Sky Sports studios analysing the final with Sean Fitzpatrick and I’m looking forward to the verbals and renewing our South African-New Zealand rivalry. Luckily, Michael Lynagh is also involved and he will be in the middle as a buffer. It’s a privilege to share my opinion on the oval game and there are always some fun moments with the Sky Sports crew... De Bruin has ignited the mind games by voicing his concerns about the assistant referees, appointed for the final, being New Zealanders. When you play in finals it’s about the psychological battle, war of words, at times, and seeing if you can unnerve the opposition. There is, however, validity in De Bruin’s point in terms of the officials needing to police the Crusaders strong defensive press to determine if they are onside. He has also made claims about illegal scrummaging to try to negate some of the Crusaders’ strengths. By raising those pre-match, it also puts pressure on the match officials to make the correct calls. Australian referee Angus Gardner has been deemed the right man for the job and having a neutral referee makes sense as it means neither side can point fingers post-match.
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