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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
Far from perfect prep for Springboks
Stephen Nell
June 12, 2007

"South Africa are preparing for Saturday's opener against the backdrop of political turmoil and an inquiry into the conduct of Jake White." Stephen Nell reports

The Springbok boss could be dismissed if it's found that an argument that he had with a journalist last Thursday night led directly to the assault of the reporter by someone else in the bar.

On top of that he has upset his bosses by arranging a private meeting with South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki.

White did not arrange the meeting through SA Rugby channels and it has now been learned that they have drafted a letter in which they forbid him from going ahead with it. Concerns have been expressed in rugby and political circles that White has undermined the authority of his own leaders and the Ministry of Sport by going over their heads to arrange a meeting with Mbeki.

The Bok coach does have one political hot potato off his hands. Luke Watson, who was included in the Springbok squad against White's will, is not part of the group for the home leg of the Tri-Nations.

Watson made a solid debut in the 35-8 win over Samoa, with his positive contributions outweighing an uncharacteristic dropped pass and early penalty that he conceded.

Schalk Burger should, however, be back in business this weekend in a virtually full-strength Bok side, with wing Bryan Habana and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez the only notable absentees. Reserve halfback Ricky Januarie is injured, but it's a position where South Africa have enormous depth, with Ruan Pienaar set to step in.

On the wing JP Pietersen also offers the Boks a very good option for the game against the Wallabies.

There is much hype surrounding the fact that South Africa can potentially upstage the All Blacks at this year's World Cup and on paper that sentiment is not unrealistic.

As Wallaby co-captain Stirling Mortlock remarked on Monday, this is a stronger Bok side than he has ever faced before.

"South Africa probably have a lot more strength than in the past. They've always had a dominant forward pack that delivers quality ball, but what they have now is backs that can get across the line and play expansive style football," Mortlock told journalists at the Wallabies' team hotel in Cape Town.

"That's probably been a result of a couple of years of hard work at the top level and also on the back of a quality Super14 through their provinces. The backs are playing some good expansive football."

There's been plenty of individual brilliance from the Boks, but they weren't sublime as a team against England or Samoa. Then again, they never had to be.

The first true test of their ability as a team will come on Saturday at Newlands when they play the Wallabies, who will also presumably be at full strength. After that, it's the All Blacks in Durban.

South Africa haven't lost against Australia on home soil since 2000, when Mortlock struck a last-gasp penalty to condemn them to a 19-18 defeat in Durban.

On paper it's doubtful whether the Wallabies have the beating of the Boks.

In the background, however, the political battle lines have been drawn, while the investigation into White will do nothing to aid the Boks. In fairness to SA Rugby, they have no choice but to look into the matter as the assault of a journalist (it must be stressed that White was NOT the perpetrator, but had earlier argued with the journalist) is a very serious issue.

As is often the case, a glance at the team sheet shows that South Africa will prove very difficult to beat, something which most New Zealanders concur with.

South Africa, however, are very good at beating themselves.

They could get off to a flyer this week, but things are close to getting out of hand, which could undermine their Tri-Nations and ultimately their World Cup campaign if their leaders fail to get a grip.

Bok Tri-Nations squad: Os du Randt, Gurthro Steenkamp, CJ van der Linde, BJ Botha, John Smit, Gary Botha, Albert van den Berg, Victor Matfield, Johann Muller, Bakkies Botha, Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Bob Skinstad, Pedrie Wannenburg, Danie Rossouw, Michael Claassens, Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez, Derick Hougaard, Butch James, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Wynand Olivier, Waylon Murray, Ashwin Willemse, Akona Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Percy Montgomery, Francois Steyn.

Players on standby: Deon Carstens, Wayne Julies, Breyton Paulse, Tonderai Chavhanga, Bismarck du Plessis, Bevin Fortuin, Odwa Ndungane, Johan Ackermann, Luke Watson, Joe van Niekerk, Wikus van Heerden, Gerrie Britz, AJ Venter, Jaco Pretorius, Eddie Andrews, Kabamba Floors.

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