The Springboks are rich in enthusiasm but poor in form, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The collective lacks substance, and individuals again won SA a Test that was in the balance with less than five minutes to go.
The Boks this season have lost one Test at home and won three against Ireland and Argentina. Ireland lacked the class and frontline players to punish the Springboks, and Argentina didn’t have the discipline or composure to win in Nelspruit when they led 23-13 with 12 minutes to play.
Home support has lifted the Boks in the final quarter this season. The comebacks have been lauded, but there must be context to the quality of the opposition because Ireland and Argentina are not the benchmark of excellence.
The Boks won against the Pumas and for that every South African will be grateful, but to gloss over the woes of those first 68 minutes is to invite hardship as the Rugby Championship unfolds.
It’s been a struggle for the Springboks in 2016, from the opening Test defeat against Ireland at Newlands, to the second Test at Ellis Park, the third in Port Elizabeth and again against Argentina.
The courage of the players can’t be denied, so too the passion of the fans. The locals have willed their team to victory and certain individuals have sparkled when the moment demanded a big play.
But this won’t suffice against the best teams in the world and currently the Boks don’t count in the top two. There’s New Zealand, incomparable at present, a resurgent England and the rest, among them the Boks.
Surely the demands of the Boks must be more, and so too the expectations.
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee’s selections have been questionable. He has picked on reputation ahead of form. How else do you explain Francois Louw’s continued selection ahead of Jaco Kriel, the outstanding Lions loose forward. Kriel has been brilliant all season and Louw struggled against Ireland and the Pumas.
Louw, a quality player, looks short on fitness and confidence. He has battled injury with Bath this year and yet he has been preferred to SA’s form loose forward in Super Rugby.
The Lions pack was the pick of the South African teams in Super Rugby, but national representation in the four Tests has been kept to a minimum. It is as baffling as it is disappointing.
The Lions put 50 points past the Jaguares in Super Rugby, and the Pumas are the Jaguares in another guise. To excuse the lack of quality in the Boks' performance is to insult the pedigree of the many fine players in the Bok squad.
The effort in Nelspruit was depressing because it offered so little for so long. Individuals fashioned another big escape, but three escapes is three too many when playing at home.
This weekend the Boks won’t have the luxury of home comforts and it will demand more science than spirit to win away from home. There has to be a huge improvement in cohesion, in structure and in control if the Boks are to triumph.
It’s the quality of performance that has been unconvincing all season. There have been short bursts of explosiveness but it’s been more out of desperation.
The pack has yet to assert itself and the back play has been a story of individuals and not a unit. These are early days for Coetzee as national coach, but they have been uninspiring.
The believers do so out of loyalty. Those who rightfully doubt the capability of the Boks to challenge the All Blacks do so because of the rugby on display.
Coetzee has played several different combinations in the four Tests, but the loose trio is one that asks more questions than it gives answers and the midfield of Damian de Allande and Lionel Mapoe hasn’t convinced.
Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf has energised the Boks and been responsible for much of the winning euphoria. He may be the smallest in the squad but his contribution has been the biggest.
To accept what has been on offer in the four Tests this year is to accept mediocrity and to accept second place.
The hard questions must be asked if the Boks are to once again seek excellence and not be content with mere survival.
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