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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.
South African Rugby
Boks still lagging behind
Stephen Nell
August 30, 2010
South Africa's Francois Hougaard feeds his backline, South Africa v Australia, Tri-Nations, Loftus Versfeld, South Africa, August 28, 2010
Scrum-half Francois Hougaard starred for South Africa in Saturday's win over Australia in Pretoria © Getty Images
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The empty seats at Loftus Versfeld on the occasion of Victor Matfield's 100th test Saturday told the story of an alarming fall from grace for the Springboks this year.

While the coaching staff will in all likelihood earn a stay of execution, particularly if they follow up the past weekend's victory over the Wallabies with another in Bloemfontein, there is no doubt that they have to shoulder a large part of the blame for a failed Tri-Nations campaign.

Unlike the All Blacks, the Boks simply did not move with the times and seize the opportunities created by the subtle yet significant change in the interpretation of the breakdown laws. South Africa's kick-chase strategy worked well last year, but they have found themselves in no man's land as the game evolved to encourage teams to have a go on attack.

Bereft of Fourie du Preez calling the shots from the base, they lacked accuracy and ultimately fell short when it came to facing the All Black - the team against whom they measure themselves. The initial response was to shift the blame to referees and we also heard a lot of bleating about inconsistencies in citing procedures.

While one or two valid points were made, it's generally stuff and nonsense. The reality is that South Africa were poor and their play undisciplined, as highlighted by the suspension of Bakkies Botha for headbutting and the yellow cards. If South Africa get caught up in conspiracy theories and live in denial, they must not expect to progress.

The poor results may well have a significant effect on coach Peter de Villiers's plans for the Grand Slam tour at the end of the year. It will be no surprise if the Bok boss decides to rest a host of senior players, including Matfield, John Smit and Bryan Habana to name just a few.

Smit and Habana have been among those off the pace in this year's Tri-Nations. Interestingly, both were on a list of 13 players initially selected for last year's tour to Europe that renowned sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes warned had been overplayed during the course of South Africa's glorious 2009 season and should not even have been considered.

What South Africa are now also partly experiencing is a situation of the chickens coming home to roost from poor player management on a broad front. Francois Hougaard's excellent performances at scrumhalf have highlighted the possibilities on offer by infusing a squad with youth at just the right time. I had a conversation with All Black legend John Kirwan about this very issue on his recent visit to South Africa.

While experience is obviously vital, he made the point that it needs to be balanced out with youth as these players bring a vital element of enthusiasm to a situation where some old hands may have a "here we go again" attitude.

Without preaching revolution, South Africa should guard against their side growing old together. Some tough decisions have to be made and that may well mean that Smit cannot start every test. Had it not been such a serious issue, the current non-selection of hooker Bismarck du Plessis since his recovery from an injury would have been comical it is so ridiculous. My question to the Springbok selectors is whether they are genuinely selecting what they think are the best squad or acting unfairly to protect Smit.

I don't mean to disrespect the Bok skipper and I believe someone that can cover all three front-row positions is an extremely valuable commodity, but there will have to be some careful thinking about the issue.

Earlier this year, I wrote in Rapport that South Africa should view Smit as an integral part of the Springbok set-up, but not always necessarily start games with him. In other words, the rugby equivalent of football's so-called "club captain".

He has a heck of a lot to offer his country, but the situation needs to managed well. There have also been worrying signs that senior players are calling the shots too much. An example of this is the late arrival in Auckland, with the South Africans not even giving themselves enough days to recover from jetlag.

It is believed that this was in accordance with the wishes of senior Springboks, which suggests a lack of enthusiasm for touring. A further pointer to the old hands not being kept on their toes, perhaps?

While jetlag will not be an issue in Britain and Ireland, they will again arrive only two days prior to their first test in Dublin. It will be interesting to see what kind of tour squad the South Africans select come the end of October, but I believe De Villiers will ultimately end up resting several key players in a bid to boost South Africa's hopes of defending their world crown in 2011.

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