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Peter Bills: Stormers' humiliation at home bodes ill for Springboks

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Sean Maitland of the Crusaders in action during the match against the Stormers. Photo / Getty Images
Sean Maitland of the Crusaders in action during the match against the Stormers. Photo / Getty Images

A rugby lesson was conducted in Cape Town yesterday.

Just weeks before the World Cup begins, South Africa's last participants in the Super rugby season were not so much beaten as humiliated.

Some will see the 29-10 Crusaders victory as just another triumph for the homeless Canterbury side. They may even regard it as evidence the New Zealand side will seal the deal against the Reds in Brisbane this Saturday and lift the Super 15 trophy without having played a single game at home this season.

But if you study the wider picture, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Dan Carter and their pals could not have achieved a higher prize than utterly humiliating South Africa's last representatives in the competition in their own back yard.

With the World Cup in mind, this was a performance and a result of seismic proportions.

The Stormers have looked the part for much of the season. But at the ultimate barrier, they fell in a heap. It was no wonder that the watching Springboks coach Peter de Villiers seemed unable to look any more at one stage. This match and its outcome could have horrible portents for the South African national squad as they seek to defend their Webb Ellis trophy in New Zealand.

To reach the last four of the Super 15, you would expect that all sides would be able to attain a high level of competence in the basics of the game. Not so, it seems.

The Stormers slunk into the last four with deficiencies in their game that were frankly alarming, indeed cataclysmic.

The Stormers had no scrum, they were inferior at the breakdown and their line-out was an issue chiefly of throw and hope. But it was a whole lot worse than that. They could not even do the basics properly. They threw passes into touch, missed penalty kicks into touch, played 20m behind the gain line, ran sideways and re-cycled with the speed of snails.

You might think, what has all this got to do with the Springboks and the World Cup? The answer is, too many Springbok players throughout this season have looked heavy legged, slow and too often ponderous in their play. Some have managed to raise their game at times. But as someone once memorably said, you might fool some of the people some of the time but you will never fool all of the people all of the time.

What the Crusaders did, by dint of their technical accuracy, their highly robust play, their streetwise cunning and their radical penetration and sheer enthusiasm for the task, was reveal the soft underbelly of South African rugby.

Players lined up to play key roles in Peter de Villiers' South African World Cup squad - the likes of Bakkies Botha, John Smit, Butch James, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers and plenty of others - have started to look beyond their sell-by dates this season. Yesterday at Newlands, in the wet Cape, reminded us cruelly of this fact.

Jaque Fourie was released for the line but couldn't get there, cut down by Zac Guildford's speed in the covering tackle.

Jean de Villiers made no impact whatever in midfield before being shunted on to the anonymity of the wing. The lamp-post that is Andries Bekker struggled to assert his authority over honest, industrious performers such as Sam Whitelock. And Schalk Burger looked no more than a destructive element offering little creativity or guile before a broken thumb ended his game at halftime.

Yet these were, and are said to be, key men for the South Africans. But the chasm between these sides ought to frighten Springbok supporters ahead of the Cup.

The Crusaders were in a league of their own. The fact that they had travelled halfway across the world to play, was exposed as a myth.

Underpinning their complete control and supremacy was a clever cunning that was far too much, both for their opponents and the referee. At times, South African official Craig Joubert looked like a boy in a man's world, totally out of his depth, as the Crusaders got men in front of the kicker at the restart, bodies over the top at the breakdown to slow down the Stormers ball, and blockers to prevent the Stormers' chasers reaching kick-aheads.

The Stormers were shown to be naive, gullible, under strength and woefully short of even half the quality demonstrated by their opponents. When Jean de Villiers lamely knocked-on a supposedly quick tap penalty with five minutes left and the match long since decided, it was the perfect comment on the home team's dire display.

Whether the Crusaders can go on to lift the trophy in Brisbane this Saturday remains to be seen. I believe they will.

But whatever the outcome of that match, the damage has already been done to South Africa's bid to retain their Rugby World Cup crown. For, come semifinal day if South Africa confronts New Zealand, which of the Springbok players will not have in the back of their minds the utter humiliation inflicted this weekend on their supposedly best Super 15 team?

The psychological scars inflicted by the Crusaders in the Cape this weekend might just prove to be the most valuable act of all the rugby played by New Zealanders in 2011, whatever the outcome of Saturday's final.

- NZ Herald

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