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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 sound out warning
Stephen Nell
November 24, 2008
South Africa's wing Bryan Habana (C) points to fans in the crowd beside his team mates following their victory over England at Twickenham, west of London, on November 22, 2008.
South Africa celebrate their crushing victory over England at Twickenham that brought the curtain down on their latest tour © Getty Images
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South Africa looked vulnerable as they embarked on their Northern Hemisphere tour, but have emerged bullish ahead of next year's visit by the British and Irish Lions.

And well they might. The Springboks, after scraping home against Wales and riding their luck against Scotland, wiped the floor with England to put a gloss on a year where they did not always play with the authority that did their world championship status justice.

Together with their Southern Hemisphere colleagues from New Zealand and Australia, they have put the state of northern hemishere rugby in perspective and made a mockery of the International Rugby Board's list of player of the year nominees.

Did the game's power-brokers genuinely want us to think Ryan Jones and Mike Blair are more valuable players than Richie McCaw and Jean de Villiers? It seems, however, that elsewhere people are also talking rubbish, because it surely could not have been England's best side that played against South Africa on Saturday.

If there was a time to explore the uncertainty in the Boks' ranks, this was it. Instead, South Africa emerged with clear answers from their tour, while the Lions may pose a threat because coach Ian McGeechan can draw on talented pockets in an ocean of mediocrity.

Other than the results, the most significant positive for the Boks was that they have expanded their options at fly-half, with Ruan Pienaar taking to the position after cutting his teeth as a No.9. For South Africa this is a significant development as they have been struggling to find a consistent performer in the position since Henry Honiball's retirement at the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

Butch James performs well against mediocre opposition, but seldom comes up trumps against the best of the southern hemisphere. It's open to debate whether Pienaar will ultimately be able to bridge that gap, but the early signs look promising. At the very least South Africa have options.

Skipper John Smit started the tour as a tighthead prop, but ultimately ended at hooker. He proved a success in both positions, but it was his inspired leadership that was crucial. The encouraging factor from a South African perspective was also that the Boks were back to their physical best against England and physically dominated the collisions. That, combined with the offensive defence that has characterised South African rugby over the years, laid the platform for the victory over the English.

 
"As far as talent in the South African ranks is concerned, they have no shortcomings. The big issue in this country has always been getting everybody to pull in the same direction."
 
Prominent sports scientist Tim Noakes had warned in the build-up to the Twickenham-massacre that South Africa's core of top players would require a rest period of six to eight weeks if they wanted to be sure of being at their best against the Lions next year.

His point of view was that the players appeared to be pacing themselves against Wales and Scotland so that they could be in good nick for England.

Saturday's performance appeared on the surface to make a mockery of Noakes's concern, but South Africa face the genuine possibility of punching themselves out in the Super 14 before the Lions arrive. However, it's nice to know that finding a way of pacing yourself is your biggest concern when the inconsistency from earlier in 2008 suggests that much worse could have been on the cards.

Coach Peter de Villiers became known for his eccentric utterances at press conferences, but it should be noted that like many of the South African players, he is not English-speaking. Whatever your thoughts on De Villiers, the victory over England has bought him crucial time and there is no doubt that he will be the man in the saddle come the Lions tour.

As far as talent in the South African ranks is concerned, they have no shortcomings. The big issue in this country has always been getting everybody to pull in the same direction.

If they play their cards right and can add a conditioning programme to look after their prime assets, they will be confident before the Lions' arrival.

It probably puts the state of English rugby into perspective to say that the Bok team that annihilated them on Saturday was a fatigued unit playing the last game of their season. As such, it must be advantage South Africa as we look ahead to next year.

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