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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.
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Springboks vulnerable?
Stephen Nell
July 6, 2010

South Africa and New Zealand will most likely meet in Auckland at the semi-final stage of next year's Rugby World Cup.

That, of course, makes this coming weekend's game at Eden Park particularly significant. South Africa enter the Tri-Nations as marginal favourites having been comfortably better than their Sanzar partners last year. However, there was a suspicion that the Springboks were a little bit of a one-trick pony with their kick-and-chase game plan built on the masterful execution of scrum-half Fourie du Preez's tactical kicking and fly-half Morné Steyn's goalkicking.

That is probably a little harsh. The reality is that the experience of the likes of John Smit, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana makes them smart and adaptable. The South African lineout is also peerless and this is where they hold their biggest trump card against the All Blacks. However, they are in for an interesting test without Du Preez pulling the strings in their No.9 jersey this year.

Coach Peter de Villiers has controversially opted for Ricky Januarie during the first part of the international campaign. Januarie could not command a starting place at the Stormers. The Springboks also suddenly find themselves sans the x-factor of Frans Steyn. Rumours are rife that all is not well between player and coach and there has already been a meeting to resolve the issue.

Steyn played against Wales and kicked a long-range penalty that proved the difference between a win and a draw for a South African side put together at indecent haste the week following the Super 14 Final. His three long-range penalties were also decisive in last year's 32-29 win at Hamilton that wrapped up the Tri-Nations for the Boks in New Zealand's back yard. So why then is he not in the mix?

De Villiers expressed the concern last month that Boks plying their trade overseas were off the pace, the argument being that the pace of rugby in the Northern Hemisphere is slower than in the Southern Hemisphere. He added that Steyn had some difficult calls to make as he was losing the edge playing overseas.

However, he picked Steyn at fullback after he had played most of his rugby at inside centre for Racing Metro. And when it came to a pressure situation, Steyn still managed a crucial three-pointer. Perhaps De Villiers was wrong to have his focus on the occasional mistake in general play.

Certainly I believe that the Springboks again have the beating of the All Blacks and Wallabies this year. The things that concern me are the omission of Steyn and selection of Januarie when Ruan Pienaar was clearly South Africa's form scrum-half in the Super 14. My worry, therefore, is that South Africa are not picking their best side because De Villiers has an unshakeable faith in Januarie and issues surrounding Steyn appear to be unresolved.

 
"Olivier is a great Super 14 player, but has yet to convince that he's the real deal at the highest level."
 

The other side to the Januarie argument is that it was him who scored that brilliant try in 2008 that got South Africa their first Test win in Dunedin. De Villiers may therefore be looking to tap into that game-breaking ability and Januarie's combative personality.

A few of last year's Bok stars are injured. Apart from Du Preez, the list includes openside flank Heinrich Brüssow, hooker Bismarck du Plessis and wing JP Pietersen. Apart from Du Preez, none of those will worry Bok supporters too much. Francois Louw looks a great find on the flank, while Du Plessis' injury has allowed Smit to captain the side from hooker again and Pietersen's place will be filled by either promising newcomer Gio Aplon or the experienced Jean de Villiers.

However, the Bok backline is a bit of an awkward mix with Januarie and without Steyn. Don't forget too that Jean de Villiers's stint at Munster will probably mean that Wynand Olivier gets the inside centre spot ahead of him. Olivier is a great Super 14 player, but has yet to convince that he's the real deal at the highest level.

So yes, South Africa should be considered the favourites, but they are also entering the competition looking a little vulnerable.

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