The Springboks need to find their mojo fast if they’re to challenge a combative England at Twickenham and regain the respect of the greater rugby community, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s becoming harder and harder to write about this group of Boks. The brutal truth is that there’s nothing special about them.
To be fair, there are a number of individuals in the current squad who possess exemplary handling skills and vision. Yet, the vast majority appears to be devoid of a mongrel quality which has defined South African rugby players for more than 100 years.
Where have all the pugilists gone? Where are the players who will bleed for the jersey and compete with broken bones and will not rest until the opposition is subdued and vanquished?
These questions were asked in the wake of losses to Ireland and Argentina, and again after the record defeat to New Zealand in Durban. It was clear after those performances that the Boks’ tactics, as well as the attitude of the players, wasn’t right. The shock results didn’t hurt as much as the fact that the Boks were outplayed in the physical exchanges.
Over the past few days, English scribes and commentators have revisited these questions, and have drawn their own conclusions regarding the end of an aura. Many feel that England will overpower the Boks at Twickenham next Saturday and go on to claim their first win in 10 years.
Some coaches resort to mind games in the buildup to a significant Test. Indeed, Eddie Jones has been talking up the England versus South Africa clash for months. The wily Australian, who worked with Jake White and the Boks during their 2007 World Cup campaign, knows which buttons to press.
As White told SA Rugby magazine recently, Jones understands the South African psyche. He knows that South African players feel desperately obliged to showcase their running and handling skills whenever an outsider questions their proclivity for physicality, even if that compromises their game plan and ultimately their drive for victory. White revealed that Jones has always been a fan of South Africa’s traditional physical strengths, and that he’s found it amusing whenever some have advocated a move away from those strengths.
In the buildup to the next Test, Jones may not need to resort to mind games. The Boks are physically and mentally shot after a nightmare season that’s witnessed five losses in nine Tests, and most recently a 31-31 draw with the Barbarians. Again, the most disappointing aspect of the latter clash was the Boks’ underwhelming showing at the collisions and breakdowns.
After the draw at Wembley, Coetzee clung to cliches for dear life. He tried to convince those present that the result would see the Boks flying into Twickenham under the radar.
Coetzee acted as if the Boks still have something up their sleeve. The reality is that the South Africans will travel to the home of rugby a depleted, blunted and, most concerning, an impotent unit.
This past week, Coetzee has attempted to charm the local press, to explain that the current situation is the result of a backward South African rugby system. The Bok coach, like his predecessors, has a point when he says that South Africa will never be a superpower unless it gets its house in order.
And yet, Coetzee has offered few short-term solutions in the context of the Boks. On this tour, he has admitted that the Boks will face one challenge after another with as many as 12 players joining the squad five days before the clash at Twickenham.
While one can’t blame Coetzee for that, one can consider the attitude and performances of the Boks over the past nine Tests, as well as the most recent fixture against the Barbarians. The Boks have been consistently inconsistent at the breakdowns and collisions. That trademark mongrel has been lacking. The opposition has had no cause to fear the Boks, and several shock results have further dented South Africa’s reputation.
The Boks need to go to war at Twickenham this coming Saturday. They need to show England and the greater rugby community that they are still worthy of respect, that they still have the ability to boss the collisions and breakdowns in the traditional and brutal manner, that they are worthy of the title of bullies. Now is the time to stand up and be counted.
Of course, Coetzee and his coaches will have a big role to play in preparing the team for this must-win clash. Coetzee will need to get his selections right if the Boks are to have any chance of winning respect, let alone winning the match. He has to back his most physical forward combination at Twickenham for South Africa to have any chance of extending their unbeaten run.
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