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