Are the Boks as tough as they are talked up to be?

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

THE build-ups to Spring­bok games this year have re­sem­bled a stuck record. We hear the same mo­not­o­nous rub­bish be­fore ev­ery game about how phys­i­cal the South Africans are and we hear the same prom­ises from their op­po­nents that they will match fire with fire in their at­tempts to live with the “thugs” and “bul­lies” in the green and gold.

Maybe say­ing that it has been the case be­fore all games is not strictly ac­cu­rate.

It does seem to be a Euro­pean fix­a­tion rather than nec­es­sar­ily a global one. The Aus­tralians do it from time to time, but not in the same way that the north­ern hemi­sphere teams do.

New Zealand never talk up the phys­i­cal chal­lenge posed by the Boks to the ex­tent that the Lions, the French and Ire­land have done, and it would be laugh­able to imag­ine Samoa, Fiji or Tonga do­ing it.

Those teams tend to just get on with it in the knowl­edge that in­ter na­tional rugby is a tough, un­com­pro­mis­ing and phys­i­cal busi­ness and while they may ac­knowl­edge that the Boks are more phys­i­cal than most, they don’t make a big song and dance about it.

But there may be method in all the chest thump­ing and bravado, for the Ire­land be­hav­iour this week has re­minded me a bit of a story I once heard about a pro­vin­cial cricket cap­tain who was de­liv­er­ing a team talk when his men were about to face Mike Proc­ter in his pomp back in the 1970s.

“Lis­ten guys, I don’t want any of you guys to go out there think­ing that Proc­ter is fast. He is not fast, just get it into your minds, he is not fast.”

But then he looked up and saw his in­cred­u­lous team­mates star­ing back at him and his voice broke into a ner­vous stam­mer: “Okay guys, he is fast, he’s bloody fast, but just try not to think that he is...”

If Ire­land al­lowed them­selves a weak mo­ment in the fi­nal team-talk be­fore run­ning onto Croke Park to­day, they might have a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. Which is why we just hear the stuck record dron­ing on, and on, and on, and on...

There have of course been times in the past when the Boks haven’t helped the sit­u­a­tion. In the Ru­dolf Straeuli era it was no co­in­ci­dence that the Boks got pinged as much as they did by the ref­er­ees as the play­ers used to talk up the phys­i­cal as­pect of the game in al­most ev­ery press con­fer­ence.

Bakkies Botha still does, and while I ad­mire him for his re­fusal to change his ap­proach, and have been thor­oughly en­ter­tained by his hu­mour, his com­ments in the press be­fore big matches might be the rea­son he ap­pears to be the tar­get of ref­er­ees.

Botha is go­ing to play a mas­sive role for the Boks to­day, for though the Ir­ish bleat­ing has been over the top, there can be no deny­ing that fronting the Boks phys­i­cally is a mas­sive step to­wards beat­ing them.

In this era where ev­ery­thing is player driven, the Boks have started to re­sem­ble a one-trick pony more than they have in the past. They won the Tri-Na­tions by bul­ly­ing their op­po­nents, but on the one day when a team fronted up, in Bris­bane, they came a hor­ri­ble and dis­tant sec­ond.

It was the same in Toulouse two weeks ago, as well as in the last Test of the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions se­ries, when the Boks were beaten by a record score – and at El­lis Park to boot.

Botha’s role has be­come more im­por­tant be­cause of John Smit’s switch back to hooker, which means that no place could be found in the start­ing line-up for Bis­marck du Plessis.

If Botha has been the Bok en­forcer over the past two sea­sons, Du Plessis has been the pit-bull, and he was missed as much as Botha was when the Lions won in Jo­han­nes­burg.

The team for to­day’s game is ba­si­cally the one that I would have se­lected, and is def­i­nitely the best se­lec­tion of a tour which has not been note­wor­thy for in­tel­li­gent selections.

But while I laud the re­turn of BJ Botha as a spe­cial­ist tight­head – he and CJ van der Linde would have ro­tated as spe­cial­ist tight­head for the past two years in my team – there is a nag­ging feel­ing that this might just be one of those days when Du Plessis could have played a cru­cial role.

He is still in the match 22 and can be called onto the field at any time, but the early min­utes of this game are prob­a­bly go­ing to de­ter­mine the match in terms of who gains the ini­tial phys­i­cal as­cen­dancy, par­tic­u­larly if, as ex­pected, the weather is in­clement.

There has been an em­nity be­tween the Boks and Ire­land ever since Jake White told them in 2005 that he would not find a place for any of their play­ers in his Spring­bok team, and the at­mos­phere this week has been com­bustible.

Nor­mally you should ex­pect the Boks to beat Ire­land, and they never looked too flush when they had to come from be­hind to grab a draw with Aus­tralia two weeks ago, but it is too close to call for the sim­ple rea­son that the big ques­tion is hard to an­swer – will Ire­land front, or won’t they?

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