Too soon for Boks to panic

Results and form mean very little in terms of the World Cup, it’s all about who gets it right in the tournament, writes MARK KEOHANE.

The only time a coach, his players and a team’s supporters must panic about the World Cup is when that team is two scores behind with less than a minute to go in a World Cup play-off match. That’s the moment the World Cup dream ends – at least for four years.

Up until that point, all the ifs and buts apply; all the positives can be found in defeat and nothing can be taken for granted in victory.

In 2014, the Springboks trailed Argentina by 12 points with 15 minutes to go – and won with a 78th-minute penalty. They also trailed Wales by 13 points in Nelspruit with 15 minutes to go and won by a point.

They were a minute away from beating the Wallabies in Australia but lost through a late converted try. They so nearly beat the All Blacks in New Zealand but fell short with the last pass of the last attacking movement of the game. A try would have won the match.

Similarly, they were a minute away from losing to the All Blacks at Ellis Park when a television producer picked up a late tackle on Schalk Burger. The replay was shown several times on the stadium’s big screen, the referee viewed it and asked the television match official to review it. The Springboks were awarded a penalty and Pat Lambie kicked the Boks to victory.

Two defeats in Australia and New Zealand could have been two victories. The win at Ellis Park could have been a defeat and on another day the last-quarter comebacks against Argentina and Wales may not have happened. 

That’s rugby. The margins are fine. Every cliché is applicable to what can determine a different emotion between the 78th minute of a Test and the feeling at the final whistle.

This is not to excuse any defeat or to boast of a certain victory. It is aimed at giving perspective to the World Cup and to question those coaches, players, administrators and supporters who view every performance in-between World Cup cycles as relevant to the winning of the tournament.

The World Cup is a tournament won within a tournament. South Africa’s performances in 2014 will have no bearing on their success at the 2015 World Cup. Good form in 2014 is no guarantee for 2015. 

Pre-World Cup form in 2015 also won’t be a guide as to who wins the tournament. Teams play themselves into form and some get it right in one game and find a way to the final. The opposite is also true. In-form teams have crashed out on the basis of an indifferent 40 minutes.

History supports what’s just been written. The All Blacks in 1999 against France and the All Blacks in 2007 against France are examples of how a World Cup is lost at the World Cup and not won through form leading into the World Cup. 

England making the final in 2007 after a disastrous year and a poor World Cup shows that a team can somehow stumble through a tournament and have a measure of success. England were awful in the 2007 tournament. The Springboks hammered them 36-0 in pool play, but the English sneaked into the play-offs and scored the ugliest of wins against the hosts France in the semi-final.

France, in 2011, were a similar story to England of 2007. France lost twice in the pool stages and were a half a metre from being beaten in the semi-finals against Wales. Had Leigh Halfpenny’s 50m penalty attempt, with the last kick of the game, gone over, Wales would have won. Yet the same French came within a point of beating New Zealand in the final.

The World Cup is the most prestigious of rugby’s tournaments. The Six Nations determines the best team in the northern hemisphere and the Rugby Championship is the annual big prize in the southern hemisphere.

It’s the World Cup that brings the two hemispheres together every four years. Of course, it’s the big one to win but winning it doesn’t necessarily mean the victors are the world’s best beyond the day of the final.

New Zealand are the world’s best and they are the World Cup holders, along with every other trophy they’ve claimed in losing only two matches in the 49 played from the start of the 2011 World Cup until the 34-16 win against Wales in November 2014. 

South Africa, in 1995, won the World Cup but they were not the world’s best team, otherwise they would not have lost eight out of 11 to the All Blacks in the three years post-1995.

Since the 2011 World Cup, South Africa have consistently been the second-best team in the world and New Zealand have been the best, but England, Wales, Ireland and France are all capable of beating New Zealand or South Africa in a one-off World Cup play-off performance.

Springbok rugby is not in crisis because of the Cardiff defeat against Wales, just like it wasn’t a picture of health because of Pat Lambie’s long-range winning penalty kick against the All Blacks. 

The best Bok match-day 23 is a powerful and imposing proposition. The Springboks in Cardiff were not that unit.

There’s hope in that, but temper that hope because there is also no guarantee that the ideal match-day 23 will ever get to play in the World Cup. Injury, especially of the freakish knee ligament variety, can be the most determining influence to a team’s World Cup fortunes or any Test match result.

Rugby may be a team sport but the influence of an individual can be so powerful that with him gone, goes the team’s belief in victory. 

New Zealand felt that way about losing Dan Carter and Richie McCaw for many years. South Africa should feel that way about scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, whose presence turns a Bok team from good to very good, if not outstanding. Du Preez was the man most missed in 2014, and in his absence no Bok scrumhalf compared in influence, class or presence.

Victor Matfield is of the Du Preez mould. Take him out of the Bok starting XV and the opposition hooker and locks breathe easier and the Bok hooker and coach breathe with more difficulty.

South African supporters and rugby administrators within the country have not been unanimous in their support of the selection of foreign-based South African players.

Coach Heyneke Meyer continues to fight for the right to pick the best South African players for Test matches, regardless of where they are based. He has accepted that to invest only in locally-based players is an idealism that has no place in professional rugby. 

And until the nature and meaning of a Test match, which is when the best of one country play the best of another, is changed, he must continue the fight for those players who command better salaries and contracts abroad.

No South African who plays in Europe or Japan has turned his back on his country. The player is merely maximising his worth in a profession that has a five- to 10-year life.

The Welsh defeat, in which no foreign-based Springboks were available, highlighted the value of the offshore players. Every selection option is available to Meyer for the World Cup, so again the makeup of the Cardiff Test match-day squad is significant.

The All Blacks and Springboks have more depth than the rest but neither of the two can boast this depth not to have vulnerability. The All Blacks, in playing two different teams against Scotland and Wales in their year-end tour, showed the difference in strength within their squad. It was bigger than initially thought. The gap in class was even bigger for the Springboks when the depth was tested in Cardiff.

Meyer’s selections in the November tour should be challenged because he took 36 players and some never got a game. Others were played for every minute available.

Player fatigue can’t then be an excuse and inexperience can’t be an excuse either. No southern hemisphere team, on tour in November, can have the luxury of experienced veterans and freshness of mind and body. The season, which starts in February, does not allow a coach to do so. 

The Springbok match selections were questionable and the answers to these questions, through player performance, were not convincing. The specifics of these selections were crucial to the outcome of matches but not the World Cup.

Meyer, in his first two seasons, never mentioned the World Cup. He spoke of winning Test matches and of picking the best team to win these matches. He spoke of a winning habit and of building consistency in selection. He said it should be harder for a player to be dropped than for a new one to be selected. He qualified this statement with a proviso: the team was winning – and winning well.

In 2014, Meyer started speaking about the World Cup in defending his selections. Rotation and the need to see if a player was good enough were mentioned. His message no longer had simplicity in it and the team’s performances were as erratic and complicated as the coach’s media utterances.

All of which means nothing until the World Cup play-offs.

And if you are still not convinced, think back to Brisbane in 2006 when the Boks lost 49-0 and fast forward a year to Paris when the Boks beat England 15-6 to win the World Cup.

– This first appeared in the January-February 2015 issue of Sport Monthly magazine, which is inserted into selected subscriber copies of Business Day and Sunday Times newspapers. 

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images