Tri-Nations win capped a great year for Boks
December 21, 2009
South Africa celebrate with their hard-earned Tri-Nations title © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Jean de Villiers Fourie du Preez Bryan Habana John Smit Frans Steyn Morne Steyn Jake White
If the saying holds true that you are only as good as your last game, South Africa should not be surveying the rest of the rugby world from their lofty perch as the IRB's team of the year.
In fact, just about their entire November tour was a disaster and left them with a number of key questions to confront. While player fatigue may be a factor, it all seems a little too convenient to blame the fact that the players were a little over-worked for Test losses to France and Ireland. Perhaps issues such as poor selection, bad logistical planning and the weak state of the South African scrum should also be factored into the equation.
Nonetheless, the end-of-year tour did not provide an accurate picture of a rugby year in which South Africa scaled great heights. The highlight certainly was not the series win over the British & Irish Lions, as the Springboks used this series to warm up to Tri-Nations performances of breathtaking intensity.
Their efforts culminated in an epic 32-29 victory over New Zealand in Hamilton with which the Tri-Nations title was secured. Coach Peter de Villiers, who had been the figure of much ridicule for some bizarre press conference utterances, finally called on a line as beautiful as Frans Steyn's three long-range penalties when he was asked whether they had found something to do in boring Hamilton: "In fact, we have found something to do: winning the Tri-Nations," he deadpanned.
It was the Boks' third win over the All Blacks in the year. While the Kiwis toured better in November and are once again the world's top-ranked side, there was little doubt in the matches between rugby's greatest rivals as to who the better team was.
South Africa's rugby was pretty effective rather than pretty, and built around the brilliance of scrum-half Fourie du Preez. There was much criticism around the kick-and-chase approach in which wing Bryan Habana was also a key figure, but the reality is that the Boks mostly played the situation brilliantly.
Even the first Test against the Lions was, for the best part, a simple but deadly effective strategy. South Africa's forwards exploited Ian McGeechan's selection bungles and laid a platform without having to play a great deal of rugby. The Boks were almost undone by de Villiers' rash substitutions, but managed to hang on for a deserved victory.
If there was a game in which South Africa showed their championship pedigree, it was the second Test against the Lions. Perhaps the tourists deserved at least a draw rather than to have their hearts broken by Morné Steyn's last-gasp penalty, but South Africa's comeback from a position where they looked odds-on to lose the game, was an indicator of the maturity of the side.
Former coach Jake White, in fact, put in place the building blocks for a side that boasts a leadership core of John Smit, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, du Preez, Jean de Villiers and Habana.
Peter de Villiers has built on that, introducing new faces such as Steyn, flank Heinrich Brüssow and loose-head prop Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira. Granted, the decision to move Smit to tight-head prop was not a stroke of genius, but it was done with the plan of giving the dynamic Bismarck du Plessis a meaningful crack at the hooker position. Du Plessis not only excelled in the basics, but was prolific in the loose.
Steyn's introduction was a necessity as playing Ruan Pienaar at fly-half was another failed experiment. Pienaar perhaps adds a great deal of value as a playmaker, but is simply not a reliable enough goal-kicker. Considering Steyn's match-winning exploits on every front throughout the season, it was rather ironic that he should fluff his lines for the Boks against Ireland in Dublin. However, it should not detract from an immense season on a personal front.
Reflecting on the year, it is safe to say that we have seen a South African side at the peak of its powers in the Tri-Nations, with the maturity of its leaders shining through. On the down side, South Africa - and perhaps New Zealand as well - should reflect on why their scrummaging was so poor.
Sure, there was the brilliant performance in the first Test against the Lions, but overall the picture is not flattering for the Boks. Perhaps the silver lining from the tour is that the latter stages of the Test against Italy and the international with Ireland seemed to point to them finding a front-row combination capable of taking them forward.
This would mean that BJ Botha plays at tight-head, Smit moves back to hooker and Mtawarira continues at loose-head. Furthermore, South Africa clearly have to consider turning to a policy that they ultimately did on their tour: picking overseas-based players. Botha added a lot of value in the scrums, Jean de Villiers is peerless at inside-centre and there is only one Frans Steyn.
South Africa would also have learned selection lessons. The country's rugby structures were unified as long ago as 1992 following the dismantling of apartheid, but the tour squad for the end of season showed all the signs of being picked along racial lines in some areas.
Chiliboy Ralepelle hardly plays on the domestic front, but is picked to captain South Africa's midweek side. If South Africa want to sell the world the story that they have a black captain, here's a newsflash: nobody cares what colour he is. They want the best in the position to play, which a number of players on tour were not.
Fair enough, the poor selections cut across racial lines, but nothing was more indicative of the politics that were at play in picking the initial side than when Adriaan Strauss leapfrogged Bandise Maku into the Test squad after being called on to join the tour as a replacement.
It sends South Africa's players and the die-hard supporters all the wrong messages when these kind of scenarios are played out on the world stage. It was also a mistake to take such a large group of players and management on tour at the end of the season. Had South Africa split it into separate tours with the Boks and an 'A' side, they may well have had it a great deal easier.
However, let's not take anything away from South Africa. For the best part of the year, they were peerless. They reversed 12 years of hurt against the Lions and put New Zealand to the sword in three successive Tests. It was a great effort from a Bok side that will go down as one of the great ones.
Stephen Nell is a rugby correspondent for the Die Burger newspaper
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