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Rugby | Springboks

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The Bren Den: more Qs than As

As the Springbok year comes to a close, it’s time to assess the state of our rugby nation once again ahead of some tough choices to be made by SA Rugby.

Key to any judgement should be an honest, sober assessment of where we are currently as a nation, where we are headed and what chances we have at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It is clear that many who read this will not be too hopeful after this weekend’s loss against Wales, but there is some cause for optimism under the dark clouds of defeat.

Now, before you slam me and hammer away at not being realistic, read on a bit.

There are two questions the Springbok management, Saru, the rugby public and others need to seriously ask at the moment.

1. Are we good enough to win the RWC in 2019?
2. Are we on a path that we will improve in the next two years to achieve that aim?

Clearly this weekend’s result signifies a clear no to the first question. The on-field performances this year – despite being a marginal improvement on last season – spell this out in the clearest terms.

A horror loss in Dublin, a squeaky win in Paris and a workmanlike performance in Padova don’t make for inspirational reading. The weekend’s loss in Cardiff can be put down to some disastrous selection issues, as well as some of the most curious substitutions at the wrong times in a test match ever.

The wins the Boks have earned this season came against a French side clearly in distress, one which narrowly avoided defeat against Japan; against an Argentinean side in a downward spiral, and against an Italian side that had won one game the entire season since the sides last met.

And as someone on twitter pointed out, when the Welsh scribes tell their fans to temper their celebrations and see things in context, it shows how the Springboks have fallen in the eyes of the rugby world.

Clearly the answer to the first question is no.

The tour too brought to mind a number of questions that need to be answered as we set off into 2018 - the year before the next edition of the RWC:

1. What good did it do for Lukhanyo Am to get just three minutes of test rugby at the end of a game in Cardiff? Ditto Louis Schreuder who received nine minutes?
2. Why was Warrick Gelant selected clearly out of position on the left wing - a position that needs a bit more tactical nuance on defence?
3. Is Andries Coetzee really our best fullback? Ditto Ross Cronje at scrumhalf? Why is there not a willingness to use tests like Italy to give younger talent game time?
4. Why is it that Springbok players abroad look exceptional but fail to play for the national team? Willie le Roux, Nizaam Carr, Cheslin Kolbe, Pat Lambie, Francois Hougaard and others have all put in significant man of the match performances in the last fortnight but are ignored by the national team?
5. Is the 30-test rule really working? We’ve seen the impact of Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen, so surely there are ways of getting the best out of senior Boks playing abroad?
6. While conditions were different on the tour, why did the Boks look unsure, static and at odds with the way they wanted to play so often?
7. Why can no Springbok seem to take a ball in the air anymore? Is it a personnel, a coaching or conditions problem? And why after week one was it not rectified?
8. With the Boks clearly ignoring their transformation objectives on this tour, how will they reach the magical 50 percent number by 2019?

But despite the doom and gloom, there are a few positives at the moment that they will be able to smile about:

1. We seem to finally have settled on a front row that can play for the next few seasons together. Wilco Louw, Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx boss their opposition more often than not. With the likes of Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Lizo Gqoboka and the aging Beast Mtawarira around, the front row looks to be in very good health indeed.
2. Ditto the locks. Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit provide the core, with Franco Mostert giving healthy competition. Jason Jenkins, Ruan Botha, RG Snyman and even the French-based duo of Paul Willese and Jacques du Plessis could easily get a look in. Things are healthy in the second row.
3. We’ve seen the impact that experience brings with the loose forwards. Siya Kolisi could be Bok captain without anyone blinking an eyelid. Vermeulen and Louw should be in the mix for 2019 and then there are a host of players back home and abroad that will challenge them.
4. Handre Pollard, if he remains fit, is in the 10 jersey. Elton Jantjies still needs to convince us that he is not just a Super Rugby darling, but can boss it at test level as well. He has the talent, that is for sure. And in the wings, the likes of Damian Willemse, Robert du Preez and Curwin Bosch will provide more than enough talking points for the season ahead.
5. Jan Serfontein is a beast in the midfield, but this tour saw Francois Venter come into his own. A playmaker who runs great lines, he has done more than enough to stay in the squad and push for a starting place. Add the likes of Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Am, Harold Vorster, Lionel Mapoe, Howard Mnisi, Franco Naude, JT Jackson and others to the mix and there is enough competition.
6. Overseas players can add value, if used correctly. Marcel Coetzee, Vincent Koch, Nizaam Carr, Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Hougaard, Vermeulen, Louw, Bismarck du Plessis, Chris Cloete, Serfontein and others should be able to strengthen the Boks where needed.

The biggest problem with all of the above is that the past tour signified more a cause for survival than a step forward for Springbok rugby. Two years is a short time in which to turn the Boks around, especially with just 20-odd tests left before the All Black clash in Japan in 2019.

England arrive in June for three massive tests and will start as firm favourites. That will be the litmus test for the Springbok cause. The decisions taken in the next few days and weeks need to give the Boks a chance at turning it around, not just of surviving.


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