Eddie’s warning is troubling
With the once in every 12 year experience of a British and Irish Lions tour now behind us, the focus switches this week to the annual Tri-Nations competition, with the All Blacks facing Australia in Auckland in the first match on Saturday.
It was great to have the Lions in town, as well as all those pounds and the riveting media circus that followed them around, but let’s not be fooled - it is the southern hemisphere competition that determines global supremacy in the years when there is no World Cup.
It happened that way last year, with the Bok slip to the wooden spoon in the Tri-Nations seeing them relinquish the No1 spot to New Zealand. If Springbok skipper John Smit remembers a press conference in Edinburgh last year, where he answered a question about his big regret about 2008, he should find the motivation he needs for this competition.
“I would say that my biggest disappointment this year was that we relinquished the No1 spot on the world rankings,” said Smit.
The way to claim that ranking back is to win the Tri-Nations, and the Bulls’ emphatic triumph in the Super 14 plus the number of world class players that appeared in the Bok squad that was announced on Tuesday suggests it is more than just possible.
Certainly, if you look at the probable team sheets of the Wallabies and the All Blacks, you would say that it should be more than just possible, maybe even expected. As indeed it was last year, but there are a few things that are different this time.
First up, while they were never convincing against the Lions, the Boks do seem a lot more certain about what they are doing now than they were a year ago, when Peter de Villiers had only just taken over as Bok coach and there was a lot of confusing talk about expansive game-plans.
It was more than just talk, it was factored into selections and strategy, with the Boks going from an excellent win in Dunedin, where the emphasis on defence and structure could have been right out of the Jake White manual, to three consecutive defeats in Perth, Cape Town and Durban where the Boks paid a big price for adopting a strategy best described as flaky.
But by the end of the competition they had cottoned onto what they were doing wrong, and with the players given more power in the decision making process, there was a shift back to a more direct approach that resulted in a freakily one-sided win over Australia in Johannesburg.
The emphasis has stayed pretty much the same since then, with traditional Bok rugby strengths paving the way for their wins on the end of year tour. There was nothing flashy about the Boks in the Lions series, which they won because of the first hour of the first test in Durban, when it was all about forward dominance and a good kicking game.
In an interview the following week, Jean de Villiers summed up what his fellow senior players were thinking when he was asked if the Boks intended to take the ball wide more often in the second test than they had in the first.
“We won the game last week because of a strong forward and kicking game, if we have that why would we need to take it wide?”
Fourie du Preez, before the first test, also said in an interview “We are all on the same page now”.
In other words, everyone in the Bok playing staff knows what type of rugby they should be going out to play, and the confusion of 2008 is behind them. In a nutshell, it has really been about going back to what worked in 2007.
With the All Blacks missing Dan Carter plus Ali Williams, and the Australians looking well coached but still learning in terms of players coming through in key positions, that should mean the Boks are better placed than they were 12 months ago.
Or does it? There is a big question bugging me, and it is related to the evidence that the players are very much the drivers at the moment of the Bok bus. How long can it last? How long can the Boks sustain and survive on the momentum that this group of players picked up in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup and which has kept them going until now?
Eddie Jones made a point in an article in a British newspaper recently that should be noted with some concern for it could well be that he is right: The top South African players have achieved all there is to achieve in the game, it would be inevitable for them to allow their own high standards to dip. This could prove particularly problematic if they do not have a strong management to drive them.
There were times during the Lions series when it seemed the Boks were in danger of going back to the bad old days when they were known for their indiscipline. The coach’s confusing reaction to the Schalk Burger infraction did not help, and as colleague Dan Retief pointed out, it did seem that he was trying to ingratiate himself with his players.
There are plusses to player empowerment, but there are also negatives, and while player empowerment may be reason for us to be optimistic about the Bok chances, it could also just prove a stumbling block if at some stage the Bok train does go off the tracks. It is then that the players are going to find that they need a strong management to help sort the situation out.