The Springboks looked like toy soldiers against the Wallabies last weekend and they are staring down the barrel of a record defeat against the mighty All Blacks in Christchurch on Saturday.
There are no more places to hide for players who’ve let themselves down. The rugby field is a cold place when you’re playing for yourself and not as a unit and New Zealand are the best exponents of the divide and conquer rule.
But it was to be expected that the Boks would be rudderless following, yet again, the shambolic manner in which the SA Rugby Union (SA Rugby) went about putting the coaching team together. And for that they cannot be absolved of any responsibility for what we are witnessing from coach Allister Coetzee’s team.
When it became clear that Heyneke Meyer wasn’t the man to take SA forward — following ignominious defeats to Argentina in Durban and Japan in Britain last year — Coetzee jumped to the top of the list of favourites for his successor.
By December, SA Rugby knew, relatively, who were the top candidates but they tarried, dilly-dallied, and eventually left Coetzee with two months before his first test in charge last June. It’s understood that former SA Rugby president Oregan Hoskins was fighting to keep Meyer in the job and was overruled by majority vote.
This left Coetzee with no time to set overseas player policy, game strategy, playing style and to foster relationships (though he tried) with the country’s 14 unions and six franchises. Some veterans, who might have felt they still had something to contribute to the growth of the national team, might have felt ostracised. A lot of overseas-based players felt their goose was cooked as far as the Boks were concerned.
However, in the six tests that have been played so far, it appears that Coetzee cannot do without overseas-based players outright. Willem Alberts is the most recent to get an SOS call from the Boks, while there have been returns for Bryan Habana, Duane Vermeulen, Johan Goosen, Francois Hougaard and Francois Louw.
As to which overseas player qualifies for a recall, it seems only the desperate circumstances decide. Alberts’ call-up, though necessary, screams of desperation. Desperation for Coetzee to stop his loose-
forwards from being bullied and desperation to avoid the looming humiliating defeat. Hougaard on the wing, are you kidding me? Imagine what Ben Smith or Israel Dagg will do to him if he starts this weekend.
With every brilliant Lions performance in Super Rugby, the calls became louder for the Boks to change their game plan. Everyone ganged up on the selectors to pick an array of Lions players last matched by the 1995 World Cup-winning Boks.
But Coetzee had had little time to research whether the way the Lions played could be adapted well with traditional Springbok strengths. We now know, after defeats to Ireland, Argentina and Australia, that one doesn’t just copy and paste a game plan into international level.
And so, as the Springboks squandered opportunities to win the game in Brisbane, the overriding feeling was that their play was a manifestation of SA Rugby’s universal ills.