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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.
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Have Boks reached their sell-by date?
Stephen Nell
April 11, 2011
Bulls lock Victor Matfield, Lions v Bulls, Super Rugby, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, February 19, 2011
Bulls lock Victor Matfield has struggled for his best form this season © Getty Images
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If the first eight rounds of Super Rugby action are taken as a yardstick, South Africa's Rugby World Cup campaign is in a spot of bother.

Not only is the form of certain senior Springboks a major concern, but there is a definite suspicion that a handful of them have reached their sell-by date.

In Super Rugby we are seeing the Bulls beaten at their own game. Even shorn of their leading lights in Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, the Crusaders thumped the defending champions 27-0 at the weekend.

Once revered as the leading lock pairing in world rugby, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield are struggling. Botha is no longer feared in his own back yard and was recently outplayed by 21-year-old Stormers lock Rynhardt Elstadt, while Matfield came off second best against Chris Jack at the weekend.

Even the great Fourie du Preez is struggling at the base of the scrum, Pierre Spies is in poor form at No.8 and Wynand Olivier's missed tackle on Sonny Bill Williams at the weekend may well have done his chances of making the World Cup squad serious harm.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers declared after South Africa's victory over England at Twickenham, that it made no sense to go around an opponent if you could go straight through.

But that was a match against a developing England side that was far from the finished article. What then if your opponent can match you for physical strength? The performances by the Crusaders against the Bulls and Sharks, as well as that of the Reds against the Stormers, suggest that South Africa are not necessarily ahead of their southern hemisphere rivals in terms of strength.

It may be that some of the Boks are still building up steam. Yet one also has to entertain the possibility that a few of them are over the hill and could leave the Springboks facing a crisis at the World Cup.

De Villiers certainly nailed his colours to the mast with a contracted squad of 23 that he announced last week. He has stated in public that a contract does not necessarily mean that a player will be picked, but don't hold your breath that some of the underperforming big names will be discarded.

The coach said he was considering John Smit as a hooker only, even though the Bok captain is only featuring at prop for the Sharks this year. When quizzed about the form of senior players, De Villiers pulled out the old chestnut of form being temporary and class permanent. And how exactly the likes of Olivier and Adrian Jacobs made it into a contracted squad, only the coach will know.

Neither Frans Steyn nor Ruan Pienaar are there, but both are in the Springbok plans. Steyn is being linked with a move to the Lions in South Africa, while De Villiers' regard for Pienaar is well-documented.

 
"What we are unlikely to see from South Africa in the coming months is any form of innovation and major change."
 

De Villiers needs Steyn at fullback - note that the list of contracted players did not include a No.15 - and Pienaar may still be an option at fly-half as Morné Steyn's form in a struggling Bulls side has also not been anything to write home about.

There is a definite possibility that De Villiers will bring some assistants on board, with the names of Western Province director of coaching Rassie Erasmus and former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones featuring prominently.

Jones has stated that he will be open for discussions with the South African Rugby Union (SARU), but previously also said that it was unlikely he would help as he did not have an association with the current coaching set-up. But he's not out of the mix.

If Erasmus comes on board, it wouldn't come as any surprise if Stormers defence coach Jacques Nienaber also features in the plans. South Africa's defence was really poor in last year's Tri-Nations and they were still troubled by Wales' attack on their end-of-season tour.

The Stormers have the meanest defensive record in Super Rugby and therefore it would make sense to bring some of the team's brains trust on board if the individuals are willing. What we are unlikely to see from South Africa in the coming months is any form of innovation and major change.

Smit's presence in the contracted squad means he will be the captain, though De Villiers has stated that the more dynamic Bismarck du Plessis may well start some games. If that scenario occurs, South Africa are likely to be led by Matfield. Experience, of course, can't be bought and South Africa have it in abundance for the defence of their crown. However, there is a fine line between being experienced and long in the tooth.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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