Boks face fight for survival

The Springboks’ four-game tour to Europe will be about damage control rather than player development, writes JON CARDINELLI​.

You can’t blame the Bok coaches and players for remaining optimistic. This past week, they’ve spoken about putting the embarrassing 57-15 loss to the All Blacks behind them. They’ve talked about winning all four matches in Europe this November, and about embracing a more entertaining brand of rugby as they build towards the 2017 season.

You can’t blame them for living in a dream world. To face up to the nightmare of the past five months, and to contemplate the horrors that lie in wait in London, Florence and Cardiff would be counterproductive. 

That said, South Africans outside the Bok bubble may find it harder to forget the home loss to Ireland, the away defeat to Argentina, and the two-from-four return in the Rugby Championship. Those who watched the Boks concede nine tries to the All Blacks at Kings Park, and those who have followed the reaction in subsequent weeks will have little reason to feel optimistic about the tour to the north.

Indeed, perhaps all South Africa can hope for at this stage is that the Boks put up a greater fight in Europe than they did in the recent clash with the All Blacks.

For starters, the Boks will travel to Europe with a severely depleted squad. It’s not only the injuries that will hurt the Boks’ cause in the first two weeks of the sojourn, but the fact that a large portion of those who have been selected in the Test squad play their club rugby in the United Kingdom, Europe and Japan.

Those clubs aren’t obligated to release the Bok players for the match against the Barbarians on 5 November, as that fixture falls outside the World Rugby-sanctioned window for Tests. Not only will this compromise South Africa’s bid to beat the Barbarians at Wembley, but their drive to build for the subsequent game against England at Twickenham.

Allister Coetzee’s Boks have suffered several record defeats in 2016. A loss at Twickenham on 12 November would mark the Boks’ first loss to England in 10 years. That’s a black mark that Coetzee and his charges do not want on their respective CVs.

There are many reasons for the Boks’ present situation. As Coetzee himself has pointed out, the South African system does little to boost the national team in terms of player development and management. It’s no coincidence that the Boks are nearly missing an entire 23-man squad. Poor management at Super Rugby level has contributed to most of those injuries.

But then Coetzee and his coaching staff must also take some responsibility. Past Bok coaches have been similarly limited by the system, and have still managed to field competitive teams that have maintained a high standard of play. Coetzee and his lieutenants have been exposed thus far, and may find it hard to redeem themselves on a demanding tour to the north.

The assertion that this Bok side, a side that has struggled to such an extent and suffered such significant personnel losses over the past five months, could go to Europe this November and run the home teams off their feet is pure fantasy.

One also needs to remember that Coetzee’s Boks need to win at least two matches on this tour to avoid finishing 2016 with a win record of less than 50%. The Boks have recorded an annual return of less than 50% only twice in the professional era (45% in 2002 and 42% in 2006).

That ambition to win and add some respectability to the overall season record should influence the Boks’ tactics this November. Of course, the conditions in the northern hemisphere will prescribe a more pragmatic approach. And again, Bok coaches, players, and even fans might not want to be reminded that the Boks’ kicking, defence and overall game management has been piss poor in 2016.

The match against England is the biggest of the tour. Despite the challenges, Coetzee needs to find a way of preparing his charges for that clash.

Coetzee has to back his strongest available side for the first match against the Barbarians. This will allow certain combinations to settle and adapt to the conditions before the next game against England.

Inevitably, some will demand that Coetzee stacks his side with youngsters and throws caution to the wind. What those people forget is that the lengthy injury list will force Coetzee to field young and inexperienced combinations this November.

Right now, the No 6 options are Roelof Smit, an uncapped specialist fetcher, and Nizaam Carr, a player who has never started a Test and is better known for his Super Rugby exploits at No 8. Apart from lock, the Boks appear to be short on experienced players in every position. There will be further injuries on this tour, and that will compromise the Boks' ability to remain competitive.

Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli