Pressure builds on Boks

Allister Coetzee and his charges are desperate to make a statement ahead of their all-important tour fixture against England, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.

‘I know what it’s like to be part of a Springbok team that faces England at Twickenham,’ Coetzee said at the Bok team hotel on Thursday.

‘I’ve been there before, as part of Jake White’s Bok coaching team [between 2004 and 2007]. The players always look forward to this fixture at the home of rugby. It’s like playing the All Blacks in New Zealand.’

The Boks will play their first tour match against the Barbarians at Wembley this Saturday. But make no mistake, the players and coaches are viewing this one-off at Wembley as preparation for the subsequent battle at Twickenham. The latter game is clearly more important than the former. There will be so much more at stake.

The British press is already hyping the 12 November fixture and analysing Coetzee’s Boks in the context of the meeting with Eddie Jones’s England. Coetzee’s side has lost five of their last nine matches. Meanwhile, England have won nine out of nine, and look well placed to end a 10-year losing streak against South Africa next week.

On Thursday, The Telegraph ran an interview with Duane Vermeulen, a senior Bok who will not feature on the four-game tour to Europe. Vermeulen took aim at the structures of SA Rugby and bemoaned the impact it had on the players and ultimately the national team.

Vermeulen gave a similar interview to a South African newspaper in the wake of the Boks’ 57-15 loss to the All Blacks last month. The English media has now revisited the comments made by Vermeulen in the context of the monumental clash between England and the Boks.

On Thursday, Coetzee fielded a number of questions from local reporters about the recent SA Rugby coaching indaba, the Boks’ 2016 record, and the decline of South African rugby standards in general. Many former coaches, players and commentators have described Coetzee’s Boks as a team in free fall. Many have asserted that the Boks no longer possess an intimidating aura. Evidently, the local press in London wants to know how this has come to pass.

Forget the hype – if there is any – around a running rugby extravaganza between two watered-down sides at Wembley this coming Saturday. The locals are looking forward to the next match at Twickenham, which could witness England's first victory against South Africa since 2006.

On Thursday, Coetzee confirmed that 12 South Africans are currently unavailable due to club commitments in England, France and Japan. What this means is that many of the Boks' best players will only join the squad five days before the match against England.

Coetzee spoke about the Boks building momentum and addressing their shortcomings ahead of that Test against England. However, there should be a number of changes next week, with more experienced players flying into London from Europe and Japan. It follows that Coetzee and his lieutenants will face an added challenge in getting the incoming players to gel with those Boks already in London.

As if he could read the minds of the journalists present at Thursday’s press conference, Coetzee said: ‘I’m actually a bit nervous about the game against the Barbarians. Some of the players may do so well this Saturday, and then I will have some real problems making selections next week.’

The statement, however, lacked conviction. The Boks have suffered a number of injuries over the course of the 2016 season, and will tour Europe this November without 19 players. Subtract another 12 due to club commitments this week, and one begins to realise just how depleted the team is.

Nevertheless, the pressure continues to build. The Boks sustained historical losses to Ireland and Argentina this season. They suffered a record 42-point defeat to the All Blacks in South Africa last month. If they don’t bounce back at Twickenham next week, they will add another unwanted record to the list: a first loss to England in a decade.

Inadvertently, Coetzee may have increased the pressure by aligning a visit to Twickenham with a visit to the All Blacks in New Zealand. The Boks hardly need to be reminded of the fact that they haven’t beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand since 2009. Indeed, Coetzee may do better to remind his charges about the games the Boks have won at this venue over the past 10 years.

Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli