Fragile mentality greatest threat to World Cup prospects
By the time you read this, the Springboks will probably have recovered from riddling the English team with blanks at Twickenham last weekend by beating France in Paris late last night.
Of the many things you can set your clock by in South Africa, the Boks responding to a performance as impotent as Angus Gardner’s refereeing with something approaching a convincing victory is one of them.
The main switch for this is a mentality so brittle that Rassie Erasmus’ men can almost always be counted on to win the games they shouldn’t and lose the ones they should. Few teams in world rugby are as mentally inconsistent – weak, if you like – as the Boks.
If you don’t buy it, think back to their Rugby Championship results in Mendoza, Brisbane, Wellington and Pretoria.
Having smashed the Argentina pack in Durban, the Boks were still floating from all the smoke blown up their backsides from that victory and simply didn’t turn up in a humiliating defeat in Mendoza.
Against a Wallabies side missing four frontline players they still managed to emerge with a loss at the Suncorp Stadium, while they dominated the return fixture against the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld only to emerge with that thing only South African fans like – a creditable defeat.
The miracle of Wellington emphasises the theory of a Springbok team that relies heavily on an underdog status to do its best work. Having lost to Australia the week before, the expectation was that keeping the margin of defeat against the All Blacks to 15 points would be a moral victory, except the Boks came away with an actual victory.
By the looks of it, all a team has to do to have a real chance against the Boks is to talk them up as favourites in the build-up to a match against them.
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma did it in the immediate aftermath of the Durban game by saying only injury would weaken the Bok pack, yet that’s exactly where they were ambushed in Mendoza. Eddie Jones did what he always does by highlighting – much like he did when coaching Japan at the 2015 World Cup – the gulf in experience between his side and the Boks.
There’s something about being favourites – marginal or overwhelming – that makes the Boks complacent, and last weekend’s test against England was no different. Gardner’s decision to look the other way in front of millions instead of penalising Owen Farrell’s dangerous tackle allowed us to give the Boks an out for a criminally inept performance.
With possession and territory of 65% and 75% in the first half, respectively, they should have been 20 points clear of an English side that also had to contend with the sin-binning of their most influential player, Maro Itoje.
Yet the Boks only led by 8-6 at halftime, having conceded three points when England were down to 14 men, thanks in no small part to world player of the year nominee Malcolm Marx’s proving he’s no marksman by missing two line-out throws on the Poms’ 5m line.
The Jekyll and Hyde Boks aren’t new, and this fragile mentality is one of the main reasons they can never be relied on to have consistent seasons where they don’t swing wildly from magical wins to humbling defeats.
Having watched the tactical masterclass they delivered against the All Blacks at Loftus before dramatically falling away in the last quarter, I must admit I thought they were learning to play to prove themselves right, as opposed to proving everybody wrong.
It seems like the only reason they did well in that return fixture against the All Blacks – a game they were suddenly expected to win – was the presence of their great rivals on the other side of the pitch, and mentally weak teams can be sides that only raise themselves for the big matches but not the smaller ones.
This fair weather mentality is the greatest threat to the Boks doing well at next year’s World Cup, and one wonders if they have a sports psychologist in place to help them treat being favourites and underdogs as Kipling’s two impostors.
One hopes Erasmus, the wearer of so many hats that we’ve lost count, is doing the couch work as well.