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
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.