Boks ‘Must do better’ before Lions arrive

Ian McGeechan was a keen observer of South Africa's yo-yo Tri-Nations campaign and he will have come away with plenty to think about ahead of next year's British & Irish Lions tour. [more]

Boks ‘Must do better’ before Lions arrive

Ian McGeechan was a keen observer of South Africa’s yo-yo Tri-Nations campaign and he will have come away with plenty to think about ahead of next year’s British & Irish Lions tour.

The world champions finished bottom of the table as the All Blacks came from behind to beat Australia 28-24 in Brisbane to take the title yet again. 

To their credit, the new look Springboks did manage a win in New Zealand – something no team had done for five years – and finished the tournament with a half-century against the Wallabies. 

Everything in between, though, made for good viewing for Lions fans. New coach Peter De Villiers struggled to get his game-plan going, and the free-running and free-scoring style witnessed against an injury-struck Wales side in the summer never materialised. 

The scrum was ordinary, the usually world-class lineout was poor and the likes of Percy Montgomery and Conrad Jantjes couldn’t provide the spark at the back after the loss of winger Bryan Habana. 

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So Lionsrugby.com invited Kiwi journalist Angus Morrison to cast his experienced eye over where the Springboks went wrong – and where they will be dangerous over the next 12 months.

FLOPS

PETER DE VILLIERS: It’s not a couple of months that South Africa’s new coach will look back on fondly. He guided the Springboks to six wins in his first 10 matches in charge, but the four losses were important ones – they resulted in South Africa going from world champions to Tri-Nations cellar-dwellers in the space of 10 months. Becoming the first team to beat New Zealand at home in five years was a positive, as was the 53-8 hammering of the Wallabies, but everything else was, well, a bit rubbish. And to cap everything off, de Villiers is being forced to defend allegations about a videotape reported to be of him having sex in a car park. In an unfortunate choice of phrases, Cedric Frolick, the acting chairman of the Government’s Sports and Recreation Committee, offered the following advice: “Peter must keep his eye on the ball.”

THE BACK-ROW: The much-vaunted depth of flankers and No 8s in South African rugby took a bit of a hammering against the likes of Richie McCaw and George Smith. While Spies, Watson, Burger, van Niekirk and Smith are world-class athletes who can rip a team apart when given space – as they enjoyed in the final match against Australia – they were a poor second to the Antipodean masters of the breakdown. Everything the likes of Pierre Spies does looks fantastic, but it’s what you don’t see McCaw doing that gives him the edge.

PERCY MONTGOMERY: A fantastic footballer who perhaps retired a year too late. Deserved 100 caps, given his service to South African rugby, but lacked the pace and incision that made him one of the most dangerous backs in the game.

STARS

JONGI NOKWE: How do you step out of the shadow of the current World Player of the Year? Scoring four tries in 49 minutes against Australia is a good start. Nokwe eased the pain of losing Bryan Habana with a stunning cameo against the woeful Wallabies. If he hadn’t injured himself scoring the fourth try, he could have ended up with seven.

JEAN DE VILLIERS: Criticised for “dying with the ball” a couple of times against the All Blacks, De Villiers still showed that he has all the talents of a world-class centre. He’s strong in the tackle, and has the power and guile to beat his man regularly. He also has a keen eye for the try-line, and McGeechan will be watching plenty of videos of this player in the coming months.

TENDAI MTAWARIRA: The cult favourite showed he could do more than make one 20m break a game with some strong performances in the Boks’ front-row. “The Beast” held his own against some quality props – and the Australians – and his rampaging bursts down the touchline brought crowds to their feet. The Zimbabwean-born converted flanker is starting to get bigger cheers than Bryan Habana when he gets the ball, and that’s all good for a world game looking for its next superstar.

The end of tournament report, considering what is coming up in the summer of 2009, has to read "must do better". 

Post 2007 Rugby World Cup is always a transitional phase and the Boks, especially without their inspirational leader John Smit, were a shadow of the side that lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy for the second time.

But wasn’t it always going to be that way? New coach, new management team and new players are bound to take time to gel. The question to be asked now is how long with the SA Rugby Board give those new groups to get to know each other.

McGeechan is likely to learn more about the quality of his 2009 opposition from the three Tests the Boks play on their November tour than he has from this Tri-Nations campaign. I think he’ll be sitting pretty at the moment, although Geech is too wily and experienced a campaigner to think that next summer’s three-match Test series is in the bag. 

While there is obviously room for improvement with the Boks, the reality is they have the talent and strength in depth to rise again to be the best team in the world.

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