RWC 2003: A Bok fan’s take

11 November 2003

So, the outcome I suspect most were expecting happened. The Springboks were beaten in the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup by New Zealand, and the All Blacks, England, France and Australia qualified for the semi-finals. Beyond that, though, what does one make of South Africa’s World Cup campaign?

There can be no doubt that the better team won when the Springboks and the All Blacks clashed in Melbourne. The New Zealanders were better than South Africa in all aspects of play, barring the lineouts, and produced a very good all-round performance to down Corne Krige’s team 29-9.

To put it in a different perspective, former Springbok coach Nick Mallett was scathing in his assessment of South Africa’s performance in the game, calling it a mugging, not a match.

In that performance, the Boks were in many ways their own worst enemy: they had to make twice as many tackles as the Kiwis, but missed seven times more tackles than Reuben Thorne’s men missed.

The fact that they had to do so much more tackling than the All Blacks is testament to New Zealand’s domination which, surprisingly to some, started up front as the New Zealand pack outmuscled the Bok pack.

Many people had felt in the run-up to the quarterfinal showdown that for South Africa to win they would have to control the All Blacks up front. When that didn’t happen, the writing was on the wall.

Poor Derick Hougaard, facing a great team, was put under tremendous pressure at flyhalf as Joost van der Westhuizen received poor quality ball behind the scrum. Hougaard was forced to kick often and, because he was under such pressure from the Kiwi forwards, many of his kicks were not well directed.

By contrast, his opposite number Carlos Spencer revelled in the space he was given, and directed the All Black game like a master conductor, with imaginative and exciting ideas and skills.

Marked difference
There was a marked difference in the finishing of the two teams. The All Blacks made it count when they had the opportunity to score tries, while South Africa failed to capitalise on the few chances they created. It highlighted the gap between the two teams.

Despite the fact that the Springboks had not performed up to their fans’ expectations in the last year, a quarterfinal elimination was nonetheless a disappointment. Looking at South Africa’s results, they were predictable: wins over Georgia, Uruguay and Samoa, all teams ranked below the Springboks, and losses to England and New Zealand, the two top ranked teams in world rugby.

However, the predictability of those results is maybe what is so disappointing: a country with South Africa’s rugby pedigree and history should be able to challenge any team, in any competition, anywhere, any time.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though, so let’s take a look at some of the good and some of the bad.

On the positive side, the Springboks, for the most part, played better rugby than they had done throughout most of 2003. Their 60-10 demolition of a Samoan team that had pushed England very hard in a 35-22 loss was a fantastic all-round performance but, when comparing the Boks to teams like the English and New Zealand, I felt they were under-prepared.

For the last three years it seems that all South African rugby has focused itself on is the Rugby World Cup: finding the right combinations and identifying the style of play that best suits the Springboks. Yet when RWC 2003 finally rolled around there was a lot about the team that was not yet settled.

One cannot lay the blame solely at the feet of coach Rudolf Straeuli, as he wasn’t the man originally chosen to lead South Africa at the World Cup. However, England and New Zealand found a recipe to improve their standards since the 1999 World Cup; why couldn’t South Africa do the same?

Experimenting with combinations
One point I want to make, as a Springbok rugby fan, is that I cannot agree with the idea of trying out combinations in Test matches, where the coach is prepared to sacrifice a win just to experiment for possible later success at the Rugby World Cup.

I would guess that I am not alone in wanting to see South Africa’s best team playing at all times. The merits of that are, however, debatable. There are many coaches who would disagree with me, I am sure.

On the subject of Straeuli not being the coach originally chosen to lead the Boks to the World Cup, the administrators must be held responsible for the lack of continuity. Harry Viljoen, it is clear in retrospect, was definitely not the man to lead South Africa in rugby’s showcase competition, yet the administrators went after him to do the job, even though he had some reservations.

I believe South African rugby’s administrators have a lot to answer for beyond that too, and that much of the blame for South Africa’s poor results in recent years must lie with them.

South African rugby fans have all too often seen examples of the way the sport’s administrators manage the game; it’s called crisis management. It has at times been embarrassing, at other times frustrating, and at other times it has caused anger. There doesn’t appear to be a long-term plan in place. If there is one, it is either not working or it is not being properly implemented.

Take a look at almost any successful team and you will find behind it good administration. Take a look at any poorly run team and you will see that the results, almost always, echo the poor administration.

Mallett’s views
Nick Mallett, writing in the Sunday Times, was clear in his thoughts on the matter, and I, as a rugby fan who keeps a pretty close eye on the sport, agree wholeheartedly with his assessment. Mallett said that from being the best team in the world in 1995, South African rugby has gone backward. Well, to put it in his terms, from being the best team “to a rabble”.

He said that administrators such as Rian Oberholzer, Silas Nkanunu, Mveleli Ncula and the board of SA Rugby haven’t sold the game to the South African public, but have instead been at the heart of failures, both at a Super 12 and international level. Mallett also criticised provincial union administrators as playing a big part in this administrative failure.

A very passionate and outspoken man about rugby, Mallett said South Africa needs a national coach, who would appoint a performance director, assistant coaches and development coaches. Unfortunately, he opined, the SA Rugby executive doesn’t have any idea how to appoint a national coach.

Any person that can add two and two together would realise that Mallett’s dismissal as Springbok coach was due to a personality clash; he was sacked after he criticised ticket prices, not because he wasn’t a good coach.

So, sure, he doesn’t like the SA Rugby executive and the feeling, no doubt, works the other way around. However, that dismissal is indicative of a lack of professionalism at the top level, and I feel the former Bok coach does make some very good points.

The good
Time to draw a breath and bring in some of the positives I spoke about much, much earlier…

Despite the less than glowing results, a lot of good young players are beginning to make their mark in the green and gold, and there is optimism for the future.

Even without looking at the performances of South Africa at the World Cup, it is worth acknowledging the achievements of the country in winning the under-21 and under-19 World Cups in the past two years. That bodes well. South Africa certainly is producing talented young players.

In Australia, at the World Cup, players like Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Bakkies Botha and Ashwin Willemse provided some pretty good reasons to smile, and they could become fixtures in the Springbok team for years to come.

Derick Hougaard wasn’t at his best, but he has already shown that he too has all the tools that could turn him into the answer in the Springboks’ number-10 jersey. It’s a critical position that hasn’t been adequately filled since the retirement of the great Henry Honiball – who, let it be noted, was never on the losing side when he started a game at flyhalf against New Zealand.

For the most part, the Springbok pack performed well at the World Cup, but there were plenty of questions in the backline, where things failed to click. Considering the number of centre combinations used in recent times – too many for me to even begin adding up – that is not surprising.

There was a definite gap between the flow of Springbok backline moves and the moves of teams with greater experience of playing together. Continuity of selection is so important ,and again it showed that constantly fiddling and tinkering with a line-up is a hindrance.

South African rugby needs consistency in selection, in development, in coaching, and in leadership, but it doesn’t exist, and I believe this has hurt Springbok rugby. I cannot fault the passion of the players. If it came down to a will to win, I certainly feel South Africa would have produced a better record than it has in recent years, but that hasn’t been the case.

Success breeds success, and SA Rugby needs to focus on putting a world class winning team on the field of play. Winning is, after all, the tradition of Springbok rugby. From that success will follow the rewards whereby rugby will be properly sold to the South African public. Right now, that public is disillusioned.

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