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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.
Boks found wanting in Tri-Nations battle
Stephen Nell
September 11, 2008

"De Villiers's press conferences have sometimes represented a comedy show. He frequently makes Biblical references and bizarre statements, which is perhaps a pointer to his inexperience..." Stephen Nell writes

South African rugby supporters would have cast an envious glance this past week as the All Blacks and Wallabies prepared for their Tri-Nations finale in Brisbane.

Champions of the world less than a year ago, the Springboks finished emphatic Tri-Nations wooden-spoonists, in spite of their 53-8 drubbing of the Wallabies in their last outing.

On top of it all, South African rugby is embroiled in a controversy over a report that coach Peter de Villiers had allegedly been blackmailed with a video of him engaging in sexual activities.

SA Rugby and De Villiers moved swiftly with their denials, but the fall-out has been severe, with the first black Bok coach threatening to "give the job back to the whites".

The racial remarks attributed to De Villiers have caused a stir and South African rugby's image has taken a renewed battering.

Amid the drama there has also been some good rugby played in the domestic Currie Cup competition, as the international season certainly left as many questions over a few of South Africa's personnel as it did over De Villiers on the coaching front.

However, there was never any chance of De Villiers being fired on rugby grounds. His performance has fallen way short of what was expected, but his performance clauses only become relevant after next year's tour of the British and Irish Lions to South Africa.

In the meantime, South Africa will cast an eye towards the end-of-season tour, where games against Wales, Scotland and England await.

Among the answers De Villiers and his fellow selectors are searching for is a flyhalf that can take over from Butch James. He may be doing the business at club level, but his only good performance against the world's premier opposition this year came in the rout of the Wallabies.

Other than that he has not measured up, and South Africa's selectors will hope the Currie Cup provides answers. Among the players under consideration will be Peter Grant of Western Province and Morné Steyn of the Blue Bulls.

One of the main concerns relating to the Tri-Nations was the form of senior players, with flanker Juan Smith, lock and captain Victor Matfield and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez all struggling to find their feet under De Villiers.

The last game proved the exception only. The question is whether De Villiers's grand plan was finally coming together, or whether it was a backs-to-the-wall job by the under-fire Boks when there was little for Australia to gain in terms of the overall Tri-Nations picture.

It won't do De Villiers any good to overhaul a side that on paper should be considered the best in the world, but he will nevertheless look to blood some young talent.

Matfield, for example, is under pressure to show that he should be captaining the side in John Smit's absence, as Andries Bekker this year made a compelling case for his inclusion ahead of the man of the match in last year's World Cup final.

Bekker has been one of the success stories in this year's Tri-Nations campaign, and the rise of promising players such as loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira, centre Adrian Jacobs and wing Jongi Nokwe represent the positive side of the De Villiers era.

That aside, De Villiers's press conferences have sometimes represented a comedy show. He frequently makes Biblical references and bizarre statements, which is perhaps a pointer to his inexperience in the realm of international coaching.

The main concern, however, should be the rugby. As far as the Tri-Nations is concerned, it has been a mostly disappointing campaign, with two extraordinary victories providing some gloss.

One came in Dunedin, with Ricky Januarie's brilliant converted try giving the Boks their first ever victory there, while the other was by a record margin over the Wallabies.

In keeping with the tradition of South African rugby, it has been an international season of extremes in a volatile environment.

Any objective observer, however, will consider the international season a failure from a Bok point of view.

South Africa should really not have any trouble with under-strength sides from Wales and Italy. They measure themselves against New Zealand and Australia, and over the course of the Tri-Nations were found wanting when it really mattered, in spite of De Villiers being left with a vastly experienced and talented side.

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