Ailing Springboks must bring in fresh blood and jettison cautious mindset
Published 04/11/2010 | 05:00
So, how many banana skins await the Springboks on their end-of-year tour, which begins in Ireland this Saturday?
Perhaps most important of all, how will the Boks approach this four-match international tour that spans the next four weeks? Will coach Peter de Villiers see it as short-term salvation, assuming it is successfully negotiated, or does he have the vision to use it more as long-term planning for the World Cup next year?
Given the South Africans' dire Tri Nations campaign this summer and the storm of protest that created at home, results will be of paramount importance, chiefly due to the need to answer the coach's many critics, both in South Africa and around the world.
Results are always important, yet 11 months away from a World Cup, this tour represents an outstanding chance to experiment and firm up likely combinations and key men in specific roles.
If the Springboks, without their injured captain John Smit, go home with four wins but are really not much further forward in terms of knowing their likely World Cup side or squad, then in the grander scheme of things, the trip will have been largely wasted.
If they return victorious under Victor Matfield's leadership but with far greater knowledge of individuals, with some outstanding new players who have emerged and key plans put in place for the World Cup, it will have been eminently worthwhile.
How much should we read into these end-of-season tours for the countries of either hemisphere? Quite a lot, in the case of the Boks last November in Europe. That disastrous trip, with four defeats in five games, heralded a dreadful Tri Nations campaign some months later. The fact is, the Springboks have had an awful last 12 months.
So this tour, with internationals against Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England on successive weekends, represents an opportunity for a fresh start. But for that to work, some fresh faces will surely be required.
Simply turning out the same old, increasingly weary warriors risks a repeat of last year's bad results.
And if ever there were resounding confirmation of the fact that the South African rugby system continues to pour out young talent, it came in Saturday's Currie Cup final in Durban.
The Sharks, who won 30-10 against Western Province, were sustained by some precocious performances from new players such as out-half Patrick Lambie, centre Andries Strauss, scrum-half Charl McLeod and flanker Keegan Daniel.
These new players, hungry for a chance with the Springboks, need to be given their head. For too long, de Villiers has relied on the old names, the tried and trusted. But 12 months of bad results suggest emphatically it's time for change and in Saturday's final, the climax to the domestic season, there was plenty of young talent on display. All this youth needs now is to be given its head.
Ireland, at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday, is a tough one to call. For sure, even without the injured Paul O'Connell, the Irish will be feisty, competitive. And behind the scrum, they have the personnel to cause trouble to most defences.
But there is a crucial factor to add to the mix in this game. Welsh referee Nigel Owens will handle it and we can expect him to be red hot on anyone trying to slow down or kill the ball at the breakdown, just as Alain Rolland was in the Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong last Saturday.
Owens was terrific in this respect during the Tri Nations this year and with IRB refereeing co-ordinator Paddy O'Brien reminding all top referees this week of the need to be draconian in this phase, the Boks have a choice.
Do they adjust their overall strategy and fully embrace at last the new game of dynamism, pace and attacking potential? Or do they revert to type, preferring caution to adventure? It is a critical decision. If Ireland get fast ball from the breakdown, they have the backs to exploit it and ask serious questions of the Bok defence. It won't be easy for de Villiers' men.
Nor will it be easy against Wales in Cardiff the following Saturday, as the new-law interpretations give the Welsh every encouragement to play the game they much prefer.
Again, the referee will play a key role. Steve Walsh will make his comeback to top-level international refereeing and he's an official who always sought continuity and flow. He certainly won't tolerate ball-killing at the breakdown.
Scotland will seek to frustrate, negate and spoil at Murrayfield on November 20. But you'd imagine the Boks will have too much class for them.
Which leaves the last game of the tour, the clash with England at Twickenham on November 27. By then, we will know much, much more about England's potential.
But we will also know long before then whether these South Africans have been truly hidebound by their timid coach. If de Villiers is to have any realistic chance of steering the South Africans to the retention of the World Cup in New Zealand next year, he has to start thinking outside the box, embracing new and challenging philosophies and personnel.
Above all, he has to decide what sort of game the Springboks are going to play: their old tight, conservative style or one that seeks to capitalise on the attacking opportunities presented by the new law interpretations.
The challenge awaits the Boks.