JOHANNESBURG - If “you’re only as good as your last match” then the Springboks are back at square one before the season’s final two home Tests, against Australia (in Bloemfontein) and New Zealand (in Cape Town).
So what will it take to fix the scrum and line-out woes, brutally exposed by the best in the game, and ensure the Boks are more potent on attack and better equipped defensively?
Bok coach Allister Coetzee is going to have to ask himself a number of tough questions in the coming days, and most of them will be around selection. Firstly, it’s all well and good to back players and look to achieve continuity, but how healthy is that for the competition in the squad itself and does it bring out the best in each individual? Have certain players become complacent already? Why has Steven Kitchoff not been given a start, to put some additional pressure on Beast Mtawarira; why has the ordinary Francois Hougaard started ahead of Rudy Paige every time Ross Cronje has been injured; why did a player with X-factor in Dillyn Leyds not get a chance in Australasia? How many people even know Chiliboy Ralepelle, a class hooker in all departments, is in the squad? Surely it’s time to give Wilco Louw a crack in the No 3 jersey.
Reinforcements from outside
Is Coetzee’s squad the best he can pick? Or has he overlooked certain players who could potentially bolster the squad in terms of depth, X-factor and genuine on-field presence? The current back three, who Coetzee has backed in all Tests this year, are good players, but they’re not going to make any opponent sit up and take notice; that’s just the reality. Should the coach then look to the likes of Warrick Gelant, Ruan Combrinck, Sibusiso Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am, Kobus van Wyk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg - all big, strong and quick men who have X-factor - to bolster the midfield and outside backs departments? And, Coetzee must figure out if he’s got enough men with mongrel, real heavy-weight hitters, up front?
It is interesting to note the only overseas-based man in the current squad is scrumhalf Francois Hougaard, who has not offered the Boks much this season. Then again, if he weren’t in the squad who would be the second- or third-choice scrumhalf; that’s how badly stocked the No 9 cupboard is? With the Boks having been shown up as rookies in Albany, is there perhaps room for a few more grizzled campaigners from up north? Or are the Bok days of Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Steyn, Bryan Habana, Ruan Pienaar, JP Pietersen, Morne Steyn, Francois Louw, Willie le Roux, Schalk Brits, Duane Vermeulen (admittedly some of whom have announced their international retirements) well and truly over?
For many years the rivalry between the Boks and All Blacks was up there with the best in sport. Now questions are being asked whether that rivalry is even relevant ... that’s how far back the Boks have slipped. So what are they going to do to get back up there? What type of rugby do the Boks need to play to revitalise the battle between South Africa and New Zealand on the rugby field. Do they believe they can match and beat the All Blacks with a fast-paced, attacking game out wide, or would they prefer to be more direct, hammering them in the forwards; the thing that brought them success for 20 minutes last Saturday? And, if Coetzee’s going to want his backs to play the kicking game, then he mustn’t pick players whose first instinct is to run the ball up.
Don’t panic just yet, but ...
Coetzee will have plenty to ponder following the good start to the season, his team registering wins against France and Argentina and drawing with Australia, but things went horribly wrong in Albany last weekend, in the only examination that really matters. The coach has said his team came up against “the perfect storm” in a heavily criticised All Blacks team and that it was a once-off aberration. If that is the case then he has nothing to worry about. Also, he will feel that his selections are the right ones and he will give the same group a chance to set the record straight in Bloemfontein and Cape Town. But the reality is the Boks’ good work up to last Saturday is now under threat ... and you can be sure there is pressure aplenty on Coetzee, his support staff and the players. How he and his squad react in the next few weeks could make or break him and some of his players.