A dif­fer­ent ball game

Week­end Ar­gus rugby re­porter JAC­QUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN, who will cover the Boks end-of-sea­son Euro­pean tour, points out where Peter de Vil­liers’ men will have to adapt to dif­fer­ent con­di­tions

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

NOW that last night’s match against Le­ices­ter is out of the way, at­ten­tion will turn to the real thing: that is the three Tests the Spring­boks will play in Europe this month.

While Bok as­sis­tant coach Dick Muir and some mem­bers of the man­age­ment team, as well as the 22 men who fea­tured last night, en­dured a wet east Mid­lands in Eng­land this last week, the Test 15 were at home rest­ing their tired bodies and pre­par­ing for the tasks ahead.

On Fri­day the Boks will play France in Toulouse, the fol­low­ing Satur­day they’ll be up against Italy and the week­end af­ter that they’ll face off with Ire­land at Croke Park.

Italy are un­likely to give the Boks a scare, even if Peter de Vil­liers is likely to em­ploy some of the play­ers who fea­tured last night, but France next week­end and Ire­land will sure be ma­jor tests.

While there is lit­tle doubt the Boks have been the best team in the world this year – swip­ing aside the Bri­tish Lions, New Zealand and Aus­tralia, the ma­jor­ity of the Boks’ matches this year have been played in ex­cel­lent, dry weather con­di­tions.

It made their task that much eas­ier, with John Smit’s men los­ing just twice in nine out­ings – against the Lions in the third Test when a sec­ond­string side ran out and against Aus­tralia in Bris­bane where the Boks have never done well.

The Boks were near un­beat­able at home and also showed they have turned the cor­ner and can now also do the busi­ness away – they picked up wins in Perth and Hamil­ton in the Tri-Na­tions.

Now add to th­ese two vic­to­ries the three they achieved in Novem­ber last year against Wales, Scot­land and Eng­land and one re­alises this Bok side is no longer a win-at-home­only team.

This new-found be­lief will stand the Boks in good stead in the com­ing weeks and they’ll more than likely start all three Tests as favourites.

But while they’ve learned how to win away, they face new chal­lenges in the com­ing weeks as 2009 has been a very dif­fer­ent year to 2008.

The Boks have played non­stop rugby this sea­son – and it hasn’t just been rugby.

They hosted the Lions and won the se­ries and then they went on to also cap­ture the Tri-Na­tions crown. Back home it was back to the Cur­rie Cup where the Bulls, with many Boks in their ranks, won the ti­tle last week­end.

Along the way De Vil­liers’ team be­came the No 1 side in the world – so now they have to live up to that billing. That’s why 2009’s tour to Europe is dif­fer­ent: the pres­sure’s on like never be­fore.

Be­sides hav­ing to deal with fac­tors be­yond their con­trol against France, who the Boks re­ally don’t know much about see­ing they last played them in 2006, Italy and Ire­land – dif­fi­cult weather, lit­tle prepa­ra­tion time and tired bodies – Smit’s men also have to deal with what’s hap­pen­ing on the field and winning up north is cer­tainly a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge to winning in the south.

The ex­pected wet fields make scrum and li­ne­out play cru­cial, tac­ti­cal and goal kick­ing is of the essence, hang­ing on to the ball is vi­tal and just to make it a lit­tle more test­ing is the fact the Boks don’t know their op­po­nents as well as they do the men from New Zealand and Aus­tralia.

They may be miss­ing Jean de Vil­liers, Frans Steyn, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies, but the Boks still look a for­mi­da­ble unit.

The next three Tests will re­veal just how far they’ve come from those three vic­to­ries of a year ago.

Winning in Europe in Novem­ber 2008 was spe­cial, and some­what un­ex­pected, do­ing it again a year later will re­ally get the rugby world talk­ing.

And just to raise the bar a bit – there is now an ex­pec­ta­tion to win ev­ery game; not a hope as has been the case be­fore on year-end tours.

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