Pressure mounts on De Villiers as fans demand Kiwi scalp
Published 21/08/2010 | 05:00
There is a coach under huge pressure in a rugby-mad nation seething at the prospect of further indignities.
Individual players have been considerably behind the eight-ball, yet on this day, they have the added distraction of seeing their captain win his 100th cap.
Will it be an occasion of joy or continuing despair for South African captain John Smit amid the swirling emotions of Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium this afternoon? Will the vast 90,000 audience have its faith in their beloved Springboks reaffirmed?
Or will the growing murmurs of dissent, aimed principally at coach Peter de Villiers after his team's defeats on their Tri Nations travels this year -- which followed a shocking northern hemisphere tour late last year -- become ever louder?
As one newspaper headline this week put it 'the wind of revolt' is blowing around South African rugby. No one is more determined to fan those flames than the All Blacks.
You would need a psychologist, not a rugby observer, to dissect the meaning of all these disparate elements. New Zealand have won all four of their Tri Nations matches this season and stand just a single point away from regaining the trophy from South Africa's grasp. Even defeat, by seven points or less, or the scoring of four tries in a loss, would be sufficient to send the trophy back to New Zealand with the All Blacks tomorrow.
But these revived New Zealanders are not thinking about a defeat. With a full wind in their sails, which they hope will blow them all the way to the World Cup in 13 months' time, Graham Henry's All Blacks have played some sublime rugby. Confidence, like their try scoring, is at lofty levels.
Yet Henry this week counselled some caution.
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves; we know the challenge in front of us," he said. "We expect them to come at us hard. I also think they will use the ball. There's not going to be any rain, so it will be great conditions to use the ball."
All of which sounded completely innocent yet, in reality, was as pleasant for the South Africans as a knife pressed to their ribs. For the Springboks are in a real quandary right now.
The new law interpretations have left them isolated, bewildered. While the All Blacks, heavily beaten by South Africa just 12 months ago when the game was principally a physical, forward-orientated, goal-kicking contest, have adapted with alacrity to the faster, more fluid and open, attacking game now favoured by the IRB, the South Africans have floundered out of their comfort zone of line-outs, static mauls and crunching collisions.
They have not yet come to terms with this new dynamic game but their demanding, expectant audience will require evidence of progression today.
Manifestly, the Springboks have the players to play that way and be a real threat. But their key men are unused to such an approach and you cannot just flick a switch and adapt.
As All Black out-half Dan Carter says: "We have been trying to perfect this style for almost a year now. It takes time."
So do the Boks kick or run, do they stick or twist? One of their problems is that they have repeatedly picked the wrong team in recent times. There is evidence that trend is continuing with some of the personnel in this side.
Eyebrows have been raised throughout South African rugby at the coach's belief that Gio Aplon is the best No 15 in the country. And the lack of a genuine open-side flanker to counter the marauding, highly influential Richie McCaw amazes most observers.
"Their roles have been clearly defined. It won't be a problem," insists de Villiers. But then, he insisted all would be well in the UK last November and in Australasia last month.
It should be said, South Africa are without some key men -- Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Frans Steyn. Even so, the pressure mounts on de Villiers.
SOUTH AFRICA -- G Aplon; JP Pietersen, J De Jongh, J De Villiers, B Habana; M Steyn, F Hougaard; G Steenkamp, J Smit (Capt.), J Du Plessis, F Van der Merwe, V Matfield, S Burger, J Smith, P Spies.
NEW ZEALAND -- M Muliaina; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, J Rokocoko; D Carter, J Cowan; A Woodcock, K Mealamu, B Franks, B Thorn, T Donnelly, J Kaino, R McCaw (Capt), K Read.
REF -- N Owens (Wales).
South Africa v New Zealand,
Live, Sky Sports 4, 4.0pm