The Springboks continue to frustrate and confuse in the buildup to what should be a tour- and season-defining clash against England, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.
Do the Boks truly believe that they can beat England at Twickenham this Saturday?
History suggests that South Africa have good cause to feel confident. The Boks have not lost to England in 10 years. Their unbeaten run at Twickenham also stretches back to 2006. It’s a streak to be proud of, and a streak that should be celebrated at every opportunity.
Unless, of course, it’s about to come to an abrupt end. Then you avoid talking about it in public. In some instances, you plead ignorance to its existence.
On Tuesday, Warren Whiteley said that he was unaware of the Boks’ 12-game unbeaten run. It was a startling admission by a player who, despite his relative lack of experience at Test level, is considered one of the leaders in this Bok team.
It was an admission that caught many of us at the press conference off guard. Either Whiteley was trying to play the record down in an attempt to alleviate the pressure on his beleaguered side, or he genuinely didn’t know about it.
Given all the analysis that is done these days, and the fact that rugby players are, by and large, students of the game’s history, it’s hard to believe that the latter could be true.
Indeed, Matt Proudfoot, who was seated next to Whiteley at the top table, gave the game away when he moved to qualify Whiteley’s statement almost immediately.
‘I don’t think those things come into your motivation,’ said Proudfoot. ‘You know the challenge of playing England at Twickenham is one of the greatest challenges in rugby. That’s the challenge.
‘You don’t disrespect them by saying there’s a record there. That’s not what rugby is about. Rugby is about facing up to the challenge you have every Saturday against a side who is probably playing the best rugby they have played in a long time on their own patch.’
It’s hard to understand exactly what sort of mind game the Boks are playing. Are they attempting to lure Eddie Jones and his English charges into a false sense of security, or are they preparing a punch-drunk South African rugby public for another kick in the gut?
Do the Boks truly believe that they can beat England at Twickenham this Saturday? I don’t think so.
Having followed the team in London for the past week, I get the sense that the coaches as well as the players are going through the motions.
Allister Coetzee has deflected attention by encouraging local scribes to focus on the backward system in South Africa and its impact on the national team. When he has spoken about the Boks and their chances against England at Twickenham, his words have lacked conviction.
Others like Proudfoot, who grew red in the face on Tuesday when the subject of gainline dominance – and the Boks’ lack thereof in 2016 – was broached, has failed to hide his contempt for media critics. His qualification of Whiteley’s statement effectively served as a lecture to the journalist who had dared to ask the question.
Of course, what we’ve learned about this Bok group in 2016 is that they don’t respond well to criticism. And despite suffering some embarrassing and historic losses this season, they remain adamant that they are one or two wins away from turning the corner.
Whiteley said as much on Tuesday.
‘I have been in a similar situation before [with the Lions when they returned to Super Rugby in 2014]. I've played in a team that has been on the wrong side of results and has struggled to get momentum, that has stuck to their guns and eventually turned a corner.
‘I am in it for the long run. The result might not go our way, but if we stay consistent in what we want to achieve, it will come. We have what it takes to be one of the world’s best teams.’
Some may view the above statement as positive and optimistic. But the fact of the matter is that the Boks don’t have another three years to build, as the Lions did, before there is a demand for results. It should also be noted that the Boks’ performances have gone from bad to worse as the 2016 season has progressed.
Again, I couldn’t help but feeling that Whiteley was preparing Bok fans for what could be another disappointing result.
While the English media has written up their team’s chances over the past two weeks, it has also shown some sympathy for Coetzee and his limited Bok side.
The locals want England to end their winless run against the Boks. At the same time, I've been told by those in the know that a win against this poor Bok team will not be remembered as anything special in a calendar year that's already witnessed a Grand Slam triumph as well as a 3-0 series victory in Australia.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images