Boks missing key men

The Springboks could struggle in Australasia without several key players, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

There is vulnerability about the Springboks. Giants on paper, their on-field performance lacks an imposing a presence.

Individually Heyneke Meyer’s Rugby Championship squad is a class act. But some players appear jaded, some appear empty in performance, some are out of form, some are just returning from long-term injury and the odd one is adapting to international rugby.

There was praise for the character of the Boks to win against Wales in the last minute, despite trailing 30-17 with six minutes to go. There was also praise for fashioning a win against the Pumas when trailing 28-16 with a quarter to go.

But there also has to be context. Wales lost it against the Boks as much as the Boks won it. And Argentina imploded in the last 10 minutes because they are a side that does not know how to close out games against the world’s best teams.

The Pumas, for all their intent and enthusiasm, lacked the belief to win. It was as if they couldn’t believe they were two scores ahead going into the final 15 minutes.

Wales and the Pumas are decidedly inferior to Australia and New Zealand, especially the Wallabies in Australia and the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Meyer’s squad, at their best, have the capability to win anywhere against anyone. The only team they’ve failed to beat is the All Blacks and they created all the opportunities on their last two visits to New Zealand to secure the victory. In Dunedin Morné Steyn’s goal-kicking failed and in Auckland the red card to Bismarck du Plessis ended the Boks’ challenge.

The reality is the Boks have struggled against Argentina in Argentina for the past three years. There was the 16-16 draw in 2012 and last year they led by a point with just a few minutes to go.

The difference between last year and this one is the makeup of the match squad. There is no Fourie du Preez to remedy any decision-making inaccuracies. There is no Jaque Fourie at No 13 to organise defence and there is no JP Pietersen to complete the back three as a unit.

There is also no Willem Alberts or Schalk Burger to play aggressor and enforcer as the ball-carrying blindside flank option. Alberts is injured and Burger is unavailable because of Japanese club commitments.

Juan Smith was to be the backup plan. The iron man of South Africa’s successful 2007 World Cup challenge completed a remarkable return to international rugby after a four-year absence.

But his 52-minute performance against Argentina in Salta did not mirror the powerful story of the comeback. Smith, by his standards and those required from the player starting in the Bok No 7 jersey, lacked presence.

Smith expressed disgust with his performance calling it the lowest point of his international career. He was not that bad but he was not nearly good enough.

Smith asked not to be considered for the away leg of the Rugby Championship. He felt he needed to further work on aspects of his game. It creates an area of doubt within the Bok pack.

Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Marcell Coetzee are all very good players, but as a combination it competes more than dictates.

Eben Etzebeth will only get better the more he plays. He was out for seven months. Realism has to apply here. Victor Matfield’s return will be interesting because the next two weekends will tell him whether the body can match the strength of the mind.

Matfield was brilliant against Wales but this is Australia and New Zealand away from home. The pace of the match between the All Blacks and Wallabies in Auckland was blistering and unrelenting and Matfield won’t have encountered that kind of pace or intensity since returning from retirement.

I believe Matfield will flourish more than survive. So too the other lock veteran Bakkies Botha, but it’s the front row that continues to have more questions asked than it gives answers.

The Beast has battled all year with health concerns and injury, Jannie du Plessis simply looks like a man out on his feet and game time, over the past five years, is dictating limitations when his mind knows differently.

And then there’s the game’s best hooker, Bismarck du Plessis, whose strained expression speaks more of playing being a job than a joy. Bismarck has no peer when the smile accompanies the physical strength and the obvious rugby playing skills. But it’s looking like a grind for him.

Frankly it looked like a grind for the Boks in Salta.

They’ll struggle overseas because of those influential players missing, especially the likes of Fourie du Preez, but at least there will be a reality check on who is capable of making it through the next 12 months to the World Cup.

Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images