Tuesday 10 December 2019

Ireland can expect the expected as De Villiers relies on Springboks' tired and trusted troops

A long and fractious season is not the best preparation for South Africa's touring party

Grant Calitz in Johannesburg

The world champion Springboks arrive in Ireland on Thursday. By any measure, giving scant recognition to travel fatigue or conditions is a daft way to embark on a Grand Slam tour.

Yet this is what it has come to in an over-burdened season. Yesterday, the two best provincial teams, the Sharks and Western Province, knocked holes in one another in the domestic Currie Cup final. Tomorrow night, South Africa's Player of the Year will be announced at a banquet in Johannesburg. The Springboks are guests of honour.

In many ways, this helter-skelter schedule reflects the theme of a disappointing year for the South Africans. The core players are out on their feet, a consequence of too much rugby and not enough rest. Iconic figures like John Smit, Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and Morné Steyn were shadows of themselves in the Tri Nations. In true South African fashion, there were even calls for Smit and Matfield to give it up, particularly after they had both celebrated a century of Test caps mid-season.

Since last year's fixture at Croke Park, the Boks have won just five of their 10 matches, a sorry return for a team that 12 months ago looked unstoppable. Matfield has played more first-class rugby than anyone, yet in a twist of irony he was appointed captain by coach Peter de Villiers after Smit was ruled out of the tour through injury.

Tim Noakes, South Africa's pre-eminent sports scientist, warned that the team won't be successful at the World Cup if they selected their top players for this tour. De Villiers, though, sought his own counsel.

"While we respect the thoughts of a guy like Professor Noakes, there is a difference between science and the real world," said the maverick coach. Therefore the team will be crammed with experienced (and knackered) players like Matfield, Danie Rossouw, Pierre Spies, Steyn and Habana.

The effects of the season have, however, caught up with Smit, JP Pietersen, Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Andries Bekker, Gurthro Steenkamp and Wynand Olivier, who are all either injured or recovering from injury.

Yet South African rugby is nothing if not prolific. There is blazing new talent by way of midfielder Juan de Jongh, utility back Gio Aplon, scrum-half Francois Hougaard and No 8 Duane Vermeulen, all of whom should see action on Saturday.

Significantly, the first two are black, although unlike in previous touring squads, there is nothing token about their selections: they are both splendid talents.

Strong provincial rivalries always lead to heated debates over the composition of the Bok team, but a bizarre parallel argument has focused on the make-up of the coaching staff.

Ex-London Irish coach Gary Gold and Dick Muir, a former Springbok, are De Villiers' assistants, but recent months saw De Villiers openly negotiating with a range of other personnel.

One by one a host of first-class coaches turned him down, from Rassie Erasmus to John Mitchell, from Allister Coetzee to Heyneke Meyer and Frans Ludeke. It was all rather messy, especially when the incumbents were trotted out to the media a fortnight ago, all smiles.

The SA Rugby Union even distributed photographs of the three of them -- all smiling, naturally -- showing them studying a computer screen together.

"I did chat to other people but the intention was not to replace Gary and Dick," said De Villiers sheepishly. "I was instructed to see who would be able to help us."

The atmosphere could become more strained, not least because Muir and De Villiers have opposing playing philosophies; Muir favouring a more extravagant game, De Villiers preferring the traditional Springbok method.

And of course the Bok method of kicking for territory and forcing the opposition into errors with their pressure game worked a treat in 2009, but with the tweaking of the laws, their ability at the breakdown has been neutralised. New Zealand, especially, belted the Boks at the tackle ball and Burger and Co were made to look ordinary.

Strangely, there is little real pressure on De Villiers himself. He survived a rough year which reached its low point when he crassly endorsed Bulls prop Bees Roux, who allegedly murdered a policeman in August.

"The team supports him 100 per cent," said the coach. "Not on the deed, but . . . how the situation developed."

Springbok coaches have been fired for far less, but De Villiers' staying power -- and his hold on the SA Rugby executive -- is remarkable. Evidently, the view at HQ is that while his public persona is poor -- an Afrikaans newspaper recently published a book of his clangers -- it would be too damaging to install a new coach with the World Cup now less than a year away.

It's difficult to look at this Grand Slam tour as anything but a potential struggle for the Springboks. It is 50 years since they were last successful and they haven't come close in three bids since 1960/'61.

They struggle particularly with Ireland with the last three visits to Dublin ending in defeats.

Matfield has the added challenge of blending players from yesterday's Currie Cup final.

"We'll let the guys celebrate for a day or two and then we have to get on with it. Those of us who won't be playing, like myself and (vice-captain) Juan (Smith) will be working on our laptops analysing Ireland."

Brainpower to go with muscle power, then. They'll need it in heaps.

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