The reaction to two disappointing losses in Australia has revealed that Jacques Nienaber and some of the Springboks are not in sync, and time will tell whether the coach has the mettle to get everyone back on the same page, writes ZELIM NEL.
Bok supporters are shocked and embarrassed after South Africa tripped twice against the unfancied Wallabies in Australia. However, the witch hunt to blame players and ‘the gameplan’ has overlooked the obvious – the Boks are finally getting into their World Cup hangover.
Strictly speaking, the hangover is less related to their success in Japan in 2019 than the term suggests, but South Africa’s status as world champions and conquerors of the British & Irish Lions is central to the recent nosedive, and their reaction to it.
The 600-day ceasefire between winning the 2019 final and fronting up to the Lions created enough doubt to ensure there was no complacency when the Boks prepared to battle the tourists in July.
The world champions came back from losing the first Test to clinch the series 2-1 before Nienaber rang the changes and the Boks barely broke a sweat in putting the Pumas to the sword in Port Elizabeth.
In hindsight, the lack of resistance from Argentina helped create the illusion that the Bok kit manager need only throw 15 jerseys on to the field to beat the struggling Wallabies in Queensland, historically a sinkhole for South Africa.
Captain Siya Kolisi was yellow-carded for an unnecessary spear tackle, Willie le Roux followed him for a deliberate knock-down and flyhalf Handre Pollard missed three of seven shots at goal as the world champions fell to a 28-26 defeat on the Gold Coast by a Wallabies outfit that had been dragged 128-68 in three losses against the All Blacks this season.
One thing those three players have in common is that none of them will feel their positions in the starting XV are under any kind of threat. This may explain why the response to the loss from within the camp was something like, “We had a bad day at the office but we’ve got it covered.”
The world champions didn’t have it covered and were walloped 30-17 by the Wallabies at the Suncorp Stadium this past Saturday, their biggest loss to Australia since 2011.
Any hope that being mugged by Australia twice in six days to surrender top spot in the world rankings may have sobered the Boks was dashed by their reaction.
Where Nienaber labelled it the Boks’ “worst performance since 2018” and admitted they were “beaten in each department, and beaten hands down”, Pollard put the loss down to “small margins” and denied there was an attitude problem in the camp.
After the Gold Coast defeat, workhorse forward Franco Mostert conceded that the Wallabies had been the hungrier of the two teams, and after the Brisbane reverse Pollard intimated that the Boks had been bullied off the ball.
Perhaps the only thing more disgraceful for a Springbok team than being bullied by the Wallabies is whining about it afterwards.
Complacency is like wine stains on a plush carpet – a problem that’s far easier to avoid than to solve. It takes a strong personality to keep cautioning against the perils of spillage and an even more ruthless one to deal with the mess if those warnings go unheeded.
The players’ comments suggest the Boks are in denial about their complacency, and Nienaber must shoulder responsibility for allowing this to happen through selections that have sheltered key players from the kind of competition that keeps everyone on their toes.
Technically brilliant, Nienaber’s inexperience as a head coach may have resulted in the players taking latitudes that wouldn’t have been granted under Rassie Erasmus, a notorious taskmaster on all matters that impact performance.
The Test arena is an unforgiving place for a coach to be learning lessons. Days away from a blockbuster clash with the top-ranked All Blacks, Nienaber will have to be the strong cup of coffee required to sober the Springboks if they are to avoid stumbling into the gutters of Townsville.