Thursday 19 April 2018

Ill-prepared springboks are there for the taking

eddie o'sullivan

"Next time I see you, remind me not to talk to you!"

Groucho Marx might just be the go-to guy when trying to second-guess Peter de Villiers' mindset today as he delivers an embattled Springboks outfit for the first rugby international at the Aviva.

It's a real measure of how the Irish economy has imploded that this game isn't a sell-out and it's clearly been a difficult week for the IRFU, with clubs forcing a dramatic rethink on their ticketing policy. Bottom line, if they knew 18 months ago what they know now, there's not a chance the Union would have committed to a four-Test autumn series.

That said, one smart marketing strategy might have been to ask De Villiers and his world champions to pitch up in Dublin a little earlier than just 48 hours before kick-off. Because there's nobody in the game more accomplished at getting a rugby public animated than the South Africa coach.

I'm being tongue-in-cheek, of course. The Springboks had the small matter of a Currie Cup final to deal with last weekend, before getting their heads right for the journey north. Circumstance ensures that they have come to Dublin a little half-baked.

That said, in De Villiers, they have a modern-day PC Barnum at the tiller. It's become a case of 'roll up, roll up' almost whenever he settles at a press conference dais. This is good for journalists, of course, because Peter's pronouncements tend to be more Groucho than Karl in content.

There are a great many troubling issues to concentrate Springbok minds just now after a pretty abject Tri Nations campaign. But nothing swallows up more column inches than the eccentricities of their coach.

It could, of course, be argued that De Villiers is merely one of rugby's more colourful characters and, thereby, someone to be cherished. He certainly has a remarkable propensity for talking with a size 12 wedged firmly in the mouth.

Trouble is, incendiary press conference outbursts don't sit well against a backdrop of erratic team performances. The Springboks have had such a poor 2010 that De Villiers' position might well be under serious threat if their World Cup defence wasn't now at such close proximity.

Jake White, his immediate predecessor, even took the extraordinary step of publicly offering his services as an alternative. Not Jake's classiest move, I thought. But a fair barometer of how fraught the situation has become.

So De Villiers is very much under scrutiny on this November tour, hardly a predicament his employers will welcome at this juncture.


The Springboks need a big-game win on this tour and that probably equates to victory either at the Aviva or against England at Twickenham. They are probably even more vulnerable than when shot down in the freezing fog of Croke Park a year ago, not -- mind -- that they aren't capable of hitting the ground with all guns blazing today.

I just question whether those guns possess their customary firepower.

Life, clearly, isn't all sweetness and light in the camp after finishing bottom of the Tri Nations pile with one win out of six and conceding an average of 30 points in each game. Marry that to the depleted nature of the squad they have brought to these shores and it has to translate into a big opportunity for Ireland.

The Tri Nations highlighted massive concentration issues for the Boks. They blew a 'dead rubber' match against New Zealand with a 12-point turnaround in the closing five minutes and then messed up trying to run down the clock with 30 seconds remaining in the game with Australia at Bloemfontein.

This was light years removed from the cold efficiency that defined the Springboks' mastery of the Lions in 2009, a series in which they had the luxury of resting front-line players for the third and, already redundant, final Test.

Historically, confidence has never been an issue for South African rugby, but events of the last six months can't but have left little deposits of worry.

To that end, they will surely miss their injured captain and talisman John Smit on this tour. They have named six uncapped players in the squad, which is quite a lot to be travelling with just 11 months before the World Cup. And that Currie Cup final has now cost them the services of Schalk Burger.

So, despite the presence of hardy annuals like Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Bismarck du Plessis in the squad, I suspect their five-game itinerary will ensure that the Boks will take the field against the home nations each week with a slightly weakened selection.

Can Ireland take advantage of that situation? Psychologically, there should be no impediment. The team may not be flying quite as high as they were over a year ago when Grand Slam champions, but a victory today would be our fourth successive home win against South Africa.

That would be an extraordinary statistic given that, prior to 2004, we had only recorded a single victory over the Boks, and that was way back in 1965.

Still, Declan Kidney will feel there are a few needling issues to resolve. The team left a Triple Crown behind in the final game at Croke Park, losing to Scotland in the championship for the first time since 2001. And the summer tour Down Under was deeply compromised by a plethora of injuries to experienced players.

Actually, injuries still cast a cloud over things with Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery, Marcus Horan and Tomas O'Leary all ruled out today. That said, it will be good to see the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Stephen Ferris back on the paddock.

The provinces have been faring well in the Heineken Cup and Magners League and, no question, every player in the camp will be buoyed by that success.

All in all, when you weigh up the pros and cons, I think you could reasonably draw the conclusion that Ireland may be suffering with a mild headache; but South Africa have a screaming migraine.

For me, Ireland have both the opportunity and ability to inflict terminal damage to the Springboks' November tour today. Expect a happy house-warming in the Aviva.

Irish Independent

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