Rugby: Last Post reverberates loudly for weary Boks

By Peter Bills

On an Australian rugby ground that lies on the site of colonial Brisbane's old cemetery, the Springboks were buried decisively, their hopes of retaining the Tri-Nations crown laid emphatically to rest.

John Smit's men arrive back in South Africa this morning from a disastrous 2010 Tri-Nations tour, without a single point from three matches and, perhaps even more importantly, apparently without a clue how to turn around this collapse in form.

These South Africans were condemned by the words of their own captain, who spoke afterwards with a frankness that went to the heart of his team's malaise. Defence poor, breakdown work poor, attack ordinary - that was Smit's summary and it was fully justified.

Springbok rugby is in disarray and serious questions have to be asked as to why this has occurred. Players considered world class 12 months ago now look like also-rans. There are reasons for that and one of them is this.

The Springboks have been caught between a rock and a hard place over the new law interpretations in the game. They cannot decide whether to embrace completely a fast-flowing, attacking game with ball in hand or go back to what they know best, playing a controlled, highly structured game.

They have been completely thrown out of their usual ways by opposing teams no longer kicking for touch. Former Australian coach John Connolly always said that the Springboks launch 90 per cent of their attacks from line-outs but with the opposition denying them that base platform, they have floundered.

Their attempts to embrace the more open, running game with which the All Blacks shocked and defeated them in successive weeks in Auckland and Wellington, have been uncertain. Morne Steyn looked like a man in two minds at Brisbane. At times, he played the old game, hoisting high kicks, but then suddenly seemed to remember the Boks wanted to play a more expansive game here.

Alas, Steyn is not cut out to do that. He doesn't have the attacking, running instinct to cut holes in an opposing defence and his efforts came to nought.

Of course, too many players have too many miles on the clock; that is another factor and a huge concern with the 2011 Rugby World Cup now little more than 14 months away.

Long, long before the end - in fact, even before they had crossed the Tasman Sea last weekend and reached Brisbane - players like John Smit and Victor Matfield looked weary. They are paying the price for too much rugby, especially last year, but also this year.

The decision of the Springboks coaching staff to fly both men, their key performers, to Cardiff in June for a completely meaningless Test match against Wales, has been revealed for what it was and always appeared - a crass misjudgment.

Smit and Matfield are South Africa's crucial players; it is not over-estimating their importance to say that the Springboks' World Cup hopes rest largely in their hands.

But there were plenty of other matters to worry Boks fans from this latest defeat. South Africa chose the wrong team, ceding the loose ball to Australian breakaway David Pocock who was the man of the match. South Africa's decision to play without a proper fetcher came home to haunt them as Pocock bossed the breakdowns.

The Springboks' passing was often lamentable, the ball being hurled wildly in various directions. It meant that several attacking opportunities were squandered, even though they scored two tries in the second half.

There was no precision of execution, no accuracy, no vision in the Springboks' game. But there were few others to commend. Jaque Fourie ridiculously got himself yellow carded in the second minute, even managing to beat Bakkies Botha and Rossouw's early cardings at Auckland and Wellington.

In the previous two weeks, the Springboks were beaten by a brilliant side, a world-class outfit. That wasn't the case this time. Like the Boks, Australia butchered a lot of scoring chances and looked plodding and ponderous at times in their finishing.

But South Africa were infinitely worse. Springbok rugby has sunk to a disturbing level. Do they have the men to haul them out of this pit? I wonder.

- NZ Herald

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