Frag­ile men­tal­ity great­est threat to World Cup prospects

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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.

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