There are many reasons for the Springboks’ ongoing woes, but blaming transformation agendas is futile and far off the mark, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In the wake of the Boks’ second-ever defeat to Argentina on Saturday, it was frightening to see how many self-entitled public forum comments appeared intent on suggesting that transformation was a primary contributing factor.
In the context of our sporting history, and in light of the merit-based selections in the current team, it truly boggles the mind. To touch on the first point, the importance of transformation and the need to grow the game demographically has been a part of South Africa’s unique sporting background since the return from isolation.
It’s nothing new. Yes, there are increased efforts to accelerate the rate of transformation, currently and in the coming years, but it will never be an excuse.
Right from the outset of his tenure, Allister Coetzee has acknowledged that transformation is something he needs to be mindful of, and of course it adds another challenging dynamic to an already intensely demanding job, but it’s hardly the reason for the Springboks’ struggles since the start of the season.
For a moment, let’s consider the makeup of the team that lost to the Pumas away from home for the first time on Saturday.
Among the players of colour, Beast Mtawarira started a record-equalling 80th Test at loosehead prop. This year, Mtawarira has battled to impose himself in quite the fashion that we have become so accustomed to, but there can simply be no questioning his selection as the first-choice loosehead prop up to this point.
At blindside flank, Oupa Mohoje was the Boks’ standout performer in the opening Test of the Rugby Championship, with the big man silencing critics who questioned his selection in the first place, while he was hardly the most abject performer this past Saturday.
Among the backs, Elton Jantjies has been South Africa’s form flyhalf throughout the year. Almost every single fan across the board was clamouring for his inclusion when the Lions were flying high in Super Rugby, and while he has battled to replicate that form on the Test stage as yet, he has always been the most deserving candidate to wear the No 10 jersey.
Similarly, and not even considering the lack of depth at outside centre in South African rugby, Lionel Mapoe earned his selection at 13 through a sequence of outstanding performances for the Lions in Super Rugby. The merits of his inclusion cannot be questioned.
And then there’s the veteran Bryan Habana. Take him out of the equation for a moment, and the Boks’ backline would boast just 36 Test caps. His experience is invaluable, while he was one of the team’s better performers in Salta on Saturday, with the stalwart also playing a part in setting up the Boks’ match-winning try in Nelspruit.
So, let’s not be delusional. The Boks have far bigger worries. Primarily, there has to be some much-needed clarity communicated about the brand of rugby that the team is trying to implement.
At times, when chasing the game in recent contests where the Boks have fallen behind, there have been encouraging signs of their ability to embrace a more high-tempo approach that Coetzee has spoken of. Yet the Boks have battled to maintain such intensity for the 80 minutes, or to find a clear-cut balance to their play.
Similarly, there seems to be a lack of cohesion and understanding on defence. At the start of the Test in Salta, the Boks looked intent on adding increased line speed to their defence, but quick handling saw them exposed out wide far too easily.
The Boks’ kicking game, both out of hand and at poles, has also left a lot to be desired. What the All Blacks have always done so well is to accurately determine when or where to kick, and when a contestable up-and-under is hoisted, the correct chasers are always in place.
Too often, when the Boks have put boot to ball, it seems to have been out of panic rather than a plan, with both the kick-chase and subsequent defensive alignment regularly lacking cohesion.
As the Boks now prepare for an extremely challenging double-header against Australia in Brisbane and the All Blacks in Christchurch, some big decisions need to be made, and some considerable problem areas addressed.
And at a time when the Boks look to be in freefall, there are so many more questions than answers, but one thing is certain: transformation is far from the primary factor contributing to an undeniable decline.