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Why Boks carry a heavy burden

My how the mighty have fallen. Those were the words that crossed my mind while sitting in the Kings Park press box watching the Waratahs get smashed by the Sharks at the weekend.

A few years ago the Sydney team were Super Rugby champions, now they are struggling to keep the score-line even vaguely respectable.

Their demise is not unique among Australian teams of course. The Reds were champions in 2011 but have come close to being sunk without a trace since then, and the Brumbies are no longer the contenders they were under the coaching of Jake White.

They were beaten by the Sharks in Canberra in the second round, and the Sharks probably have nerves to blame for their failure to get over the line against a Reds team bolstered by off-season signings in Brisbane the week before that.

The Waratahs conceded 55 points to the Lions the week before they went to Durban, and thus shipped 92 points across two matches in South Africa.

Australian rugby is struggling right across all their franchises at present, and it got me thinking about the Springboks and the Wallabies.

While the beaten finalists in the 2015 Rugby World Cup have slipped, and are now fourth in the world after a year where they were beaten at home by England, they still managed to do better than the Boks. They didn’t implode to the same extent as Allister Coetzee’s team.

Which brings me to a point I have thought a great deal about: How much of the negative attitude towards our rugby that currently seems to be all-pervasive and is keeping crowds away from Super Rugby matches is rooted in the performances of the Boks?

As the showcase team of South African rugby, the Boks carry a massive responsibility, and it may be that their rotten run through 2016 has made our rugby appear weaker and more in crisis than it really is.

The Bok performances could be obscuring the view of good things happening lower down in the South African food chain.

For instance, last year’s Super Rugby performances did not equate with the extreme lows that the Boks experienced during the international season. The Lions played in the Super Rugby final and would have finished top had they not come up with a questionable selection for their last league game.

Playing a style of rugby that was light years more entertaining and innovative than the standard South African fare, the Lions smashed some good Kiwi teams in the play-off phase, and also scored some important wins over New Zealand sides in the league phase.

The Sharks weren’t that bad against New Zealand sides either. They beat the Highlanders overseas and they smashed the Hurricanes at home. They were competitive in two of their other three games and with some luck might have finished with four wins in five against New Zealand teams.

The Stormers were thrashed in a home quarterfinal by the Chiefs, but in the league phase of the season were better than most of their Australian opposition and were quite well placed on the overall log.

Of course the South African teams have yet to face their litmus test, which will come in the form of New Zealand opposition, but so far this year there has been plenty to enthuse about in terms of the brand of rugby being played by local teams and the improvements being shown by some of those teams.

There does appear to be a bit of a rugby revolution under way and the national coach, who was decidedly fortunate to keep his position after such a disastrous first year in charge, cannot use the excuse that some of his predecessors did: that it is impossible to play a modern, innovative style of rugby when none of the franchises play that way.

Coetzee did admit towards the end of last year that he may have made a mistake at the start of it by steadfastly refusing to embrace the Lions template and refusing to select some key Lions players.

He has the advantage this year of being able to stage camps and of just generally being better prepared, and if the local teams do excel at Super Rugby, it is incumbent upon him to ensure that the momentum is maintained into the international season.

That needs to happen so that the negativity that descended on South African rugby in 2016 can be swept away. It is probably because of apathy inspired by the Bok performances that just 18 000 people pitched up at Newlands to watch the Stormers play the Jaguares just a week after an inspiring and excellent win over the Bulls, and ditto for the relatively small turn-out at Kings Park this past Saturday.

To borrow a Donald Trumpism, if we are going to make South African rugby appear great again, the turn-around is going to have to happen at the top if the message is going to sink in.

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