28 September 2007
When South Africa takes to the field in their final Rugby World Cup Pool A match against the United States in Montpellier on Sunday, Jake White will reach the 50-match milestone as Springbok coach, the first man to achieve the feat.
A victory over the Americans would lift White’s winning percentage to 64 percent, third among coaches since South Africa rejoined world rugby in 1992.
When the former Jeppe schoolmaster took over the reins of the Springbok side, it was at a low point in the team’s fortunes; they had exited the 2003 World Cup at the quarterfinals’ stage, beaten 29-9 by New Zealand, and the Boks’ image was under the spotlight after the controversial Kamp Staaldraad became public knowledge.
White, though, was eager to take on the challenge of one of the toughest coaching jobs in South Africa, assuming a position that had claimed a fair number of victims, as coaches left the post before their contracts were up.
One of his first messages to the players was that they were going to win the World Cup in 2007. Now, four years on, and after nearly having lost his job at the end of 2006, White is in charge of a confident team, one that many experts believe is the only side capable of challenging New Zealand for World Cup glory.
With the quarterfinals approaching, two matches stand out as outstanding performances at the 2007 World Cup: the All Blacks’ 76-14 humbling of Italy, and, arguably more impressive, the Springboks’ 36-0 whitewash of defending champions England.
The Kiwis, in their win, showed a fantastic cutting edge, while South Africa, in their victory, exhibited powerful, controlled, and focused form.
The lightly-regarded Americans, winless so far, and facing what is close to a full strength Bok line-up, aren’t expected to cause White’s men many problems. The coach has his team in the exact position he wants them to be in, and a win will likely mean a match against Wales in the last eight.
Should South Africa beat the Welsh – and they have previously lost only once to Wales – they will tackle either France or Argentina in the semi-finals.
The French have provided the Springboks with some tough matches in the past, but the Pumas have never beaten them, although the South American Jaguars, comprised most of Argentinian players, once beat the Boks 21-12 in Bloemfontein in 1982, with the legendary Hugo Porta scoring all his team’s points.
Sunday’s match will be only the third between South Africa and the USA. In the two previous encounters, SA won 38-7 in 1981 and 43-20 in 2001, both times on American soil.
Coach White and his fellow selectors have opted for a lineup that closely mirrors the one that overpowered England.
There is one change in the backline, with Akona Ndungane getting his first run of the tournament after overcoming a chest injury. He replaces JP Pietersen, who moves to the bench.
Up front, Schalk Burger returns to action, having served his two-match ban for a dangerous tackle against Samoa. He, however, won’t be in action in his regular position on the flank. Instead, he will pack down at number-eight.
Juan Smith, his regular partner at flank, will join forces with the industrious Wikus van Heerden.
Albert van den Berg
In a somewhat surprising move, White has opted to break up the Blue Bulls’ dominating second row, selecting Victor Matfield, but partnering him with Albert van den Berg and not Bakkies Botha.
Van den Berg, who made his Springbok debut way back in 1999 against New Zealand, will win his 50th Springbok cap.
Os du Randt, when he takes on the Eagles, will have played against more countries than any other Springbok; it will be the 18th nation he faces, breaking a tie with Joost van der Westhuizen.
In the Boks’ last outing, a 30-25 victory over Tonga, it became clear that there is a distinct difference between the first-choice lineup and the second-choice team, especially when one remembers the struggles of a similar selection against Irish side Connacht, a match that SA won only 18-0.
The bench, boasting an incredible 311 caps, helped quell the Tongan bid to upset the hierarchy of world rugby, and all the players who served as substitutes in that match will start on Sunday. In total, there are 586 caps among the starters and 185 among the reserves.
Percy Montgomery, Akona Ndungane, Jaque Fourie, Francois Steyn, Bryan Habana, Butch James Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Wikus van Heerden, Victor Matfield, Albert van den Berg, BJ Botha, John Smit (c), and Os du Randt
Bismarck du Plessis, CJ van der Linde, Bakkies Botha, Bob Skinstad, Ruan Pienaar, Andre Pretorius, and JP Pietersen