Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as Springbok coach went along relatively smoothly by South African standards for the better part of three years. But then came Dublin.
Last November, on a brisk night at the Aviva, spearheaded by a tactical master-class from Johnny Sexton, Ireland smothered the Springboks to secure a superb 29-15 win. And the aftershocks are still lingering.
Ireland’s upset win (that’s how it was viewed in SA) came only five weeks after the Springboks had felled the All Blacks in Johannesburg. The Boks had also enjoyed an unprecedented two-week training camp prior to the tour and boasted that they were best prepared South African team to head north in over a decade. Ireland punctured that self-confidence and it’s fair to say the Springboks haven’t fully recovered from that setback.
Since the Irish game, the Boks have suffered a further four defeats in seven Test outings, including a first-ever loss to Argentina. In 2015 they lost all of their games in the Rugby Championship for the first time.
As a result of their poor form, coupled with a catalogue of injuries that would make most coaches weep, and the thorny issue of racial transformation, the Springboks’ World Cup chances don’t appear bright at first glance.
Not unexpectedly the racial make-up of the team came to the fore in the days leading up to the Springboks’ RWC squad announcement. It’s been a recurring theme in every World Cup squad announcement since 1995.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) claimed that five black players had approached the organisation to complain about Meyer’s preference for picking white players over black players.
They could not substantiate the claim and then staggeringly did an about turn and issued support for Meyer and the Springboks after the World Cup squad was named – saying it was the most “transformed Springbok team.”
Then, a little known organisation called the Agency for a New Agenda (ANA) took the South African Government and the South African Rugby Union (SARU) to the High Court in attempt to block the Springboks’ World Cup participation. The court stood down the matter, but the judge did warn that a broader discussion on transformation was needed.
In between Cosatu’s claims and ANA’s court action, Meyer named eight black players in his squad of 31 for the Rugby World Cup. Only in South Africa does the crude system of interrogating a players’ race matter, but in light of all that was happening, every detail was magnified.
The idea of transformation targets is understandable in a country still trying to readdress racial inequality – by presenting coaches with a measurable objective so they can be judged – but the application often strips players of dignity.
After 11 years in the international arena, 59 Test tries, including 10 at Rugby World Cups, wing Bryan Habana is still counted as a ‘transformation’ player in the eyes of the those that make the rules. That’s wrong.
Current centre, Damian de Allende, has also been a victim of the absurdity of it all. Many news outlets said he was mixed race, therefore the ninth ‘black’ player in the Springbok squad.
His father laughed it off in a newspaper interview, saying, not that it really mattered, but the family is white from Spanish origin. SARU was eventually forced to confirm that De Allende is white, for factual accuracy.
But that’s what the Springbok coach and South African rugby work in and it’s unlikely to change. In fact, SARU have set a target of 50% black player and coaching representation across all levels of the professional game by 2019, so expect much more counting in the future.
And where does all of this leave the Springboks so close to their opening game on Saturday against Japan in Pool B in Brighton? Bizarrely, in decent shape is the short answer.
No one does backs-to-the-wall, us against them mentally better than the Springboks. Key players are on the mend and will be ready at the World Cup and their pool is perfect for easing their way into the tournament.
In 13 RWC games in the northern hemisphere, the Boks have won 12 and overall they’ve only lost four out of 29 RWC matches, which has yielded two titles. Their winning percentage is better than the All Blacks. The Springboks thrive in cut-throat battles.
Francois Pienaar, captain of the 1995 world champions, warned against writing the Boks off.
“Can we win the World Cup? Yes we can, but you have to have the right team culture, players in form, the right combinations and the right leadership,” Pienaar said.
“When the knockout stages come, the Springboks are always a danger because we love do-or-die rugby, it’s just the way we are. When the chips are down our DNA likes that. The other countries? Not so much so.”
In pool play, victory over Japan should be a formality while their next clash against Samoa has the potential to go wrong if the Boks are not fully engaged mentally and physically. Scotland poses a threat but shouldn’t have the beating of the Boks, and the USA are not ready to claim such a big scalp.
That should give the likes of No 8 Duane Vermeulen, scrum-half Fourie du Preez and captain Jean de Villiers the chance to be fully fit by the knockout stages.
The fact that Vermeulen, who had neck surgery seven weeks ago to fuse two vertebrae, will be ready at all is astounding.
But the talismanic back rower is vital to the Springbok cause and he is straining at the leash to play.
“I went for the six week check-up the other day and everything is working phenomenally well and I hope to be back on the playing field as soon as possible,” Vermeulen said.
“I don’t know exactly when I will play again, but hopefully it will be against Japan. Every player who goes to the World Cup wants to be part of every single game, that’s everyone’s goal. But it is up to the coach who he chooses.
“I just want to play as many games as possible during the pool phase. There are no other games that I can use to work on my match fitness, so I will do it during the World Cup.”
The 33-year-old Du Preez starred in the successful 2007 campaign and was the best scrum-half in the world in that period.
But he hasn’t played Test rugby since June 2014 and no competitive rugby since February this year, due to ankle and knee injuries. As a result he is realistic about what he can bring to the team.
“I’d love to say I’m much better than I was in 2007 and 2011 but if I’m honest, I’m probably not,” Du Preez said candidly.
“I’ve learned a lot and I will make better decisions, and in that sense I will be more effective for the team. But unfortunately age and injuries have been a factor and the last two injuries have set me back physically. But I’m still confident I can deliver.
“It’s been a tough 18 months for me since injuring my ankle last June. Everything was going to plan and then there was a freak accident at training (he tore medial collateral knee ligaments in June).
“I only participated in rugby training over the past two weeks. It’s a process but I’m confident I will be fit when it matters. I’ve worked so hard to get here.
“From previous experience and coming back after long lay-offs, I only need about 20 minutes to pick up the pace and rhythm of the game again. I’m not as confident this time, but if you ask me that question with two more weeks of training, I might be able to say with confidence I’ll only need a short time on the field.
“The World Cup is a long tournament and hopefully I can get an opportunity to play in the Pool stages to build towards the quarterfinals and get into the form I want to reach.”
Du Preez’s personal goal sums up the entire Springbok campaign. If they come through the pool phase unscathed and purring, there is no team in the world that would relish taking them on in knockout rugby.