Bok prepa­ra­tion for the World Cup has al­ready be­gun

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

WE are just two weeks into the new in­ter­na­tional sea­son but in some ways the past fort­night might al­ready have rep­re­sented the biggest step to­wards de­fend­ing their World Cup ti­tle that the Spring­boks have taken un­der the coach­ing of Peter de Vil­liers.

Or per­haps that should be ad­justed – they’ve taken the biggest step for­ward since that un­for­get­table day in Au­gust 2008 where they smashed Aus­tralia 53-8 in the last match of an oth­er­wise dis­as­trous TriNa­tions sea­son.

That was a day where many of the ex­pe­ri­enced Boks were play­ing to re­main part of the new coach’s plans. It was also a day where they were play­ing to jus­tify the agree­ment they had won from De Vil­liers to go back to the ba­sic tenets of what had made them suc­cess­ful the pre­vi­ous year.

As the score sug­gests, the re­tur n to di­rect rugby and struc­ture paid off hand­somely. While some might have crit­i­cised the Boks for be­ing too con­ser­va­tive dur­ing last year’s TriNa­tions, the re­al­ity has been that for most of the past 22 months the play­ers have been play­ing the game they are good at and com­fort­able with.

But while the re­turn to the win­ning strat­egy has been an over­whelm­ing suc­cess and for most of last year the Boks were the top ranked team in the world, there have al­ways been nag­ging doubts over the sus­tain­abil­ity of the for­mula.

Is it ask­ing too much to ex­pect the Boks to win next year’s World Cup with three­quar­ters of the team that won the last one?

Even those of us who lauded the switch to the player-driven sys­tem that has in­spired the Bok suc­cess have won­dered whether maybe the power could be­come too bal­anced to­wards the play­ers – to the pos­si­ble ul­ti­mate detri­ment of the Boks.

The lat­ter sce­nario would be a pos­si­bil­ity if the ex­pe­ri­enced lead­er­ship fig­ures in the team be­came so pow­er­ful that se­lec­tion be­came a closed shop and the Spring­bok team com­pletely over­did the “we are a fam­ily” theme they are so fond of.

It’s all good and well say­ing you are a fam­ily, but the prob­lem with hu­man fam­i­lies from a pro­fes­sional sport­ing view­point is that they are not like a pride of lions or herd of ele­phants.

In other words, the male lead­ers are not driven away from the group when they be­come too old to be use­ful.

In pro­fes­sional sport you need some­times to make hard­nosed de­ci­sions. Mod­ern fam­i­lies don’t need to do that, or at least they shouldn’t.

Over the past fort­night De Vil­liers’ se­lec­tions for the Wales and France games, and the way the new play­ers came through for him, has changed my own per­spec­tive on South Africa’s chances of re­tain­ing the World Cup. In a pos­i­tive way!

By em­pha­sis­ing Su­per 14 form in the ini­tial se­lec­tions the mes­sage was sent out that the Boks are not a closed club, and the new play­ers who have come through have af­fected a sub­tle but cru­cial change to the team dy­namic.

Maybe we should not get too car­ried away by the re­sults of early sea­son games against north­ern hemi­sphere teams. We all know how much the Boks bleated about fa­tigue when the roles were re­versed last Novem­ber. There is a sense of un­re­al­ity to the in­com­ing tours in that we are never re­ally 100% sure about what we are watch­ing in that the dif­fer­ent sea­sons do make it an un­fair con­test.

But which­ever way you look at it win­ning against Wales in Cardiff with the un­der-strength team that was se­lected for that game was an achieve­ment. And even on their re­ally bad days the French don’t tend to get smashed as eas­ily as they were at New­lands last Satur­day.

Say­ing that the bal­ance needs to be got right should not in any way be seen as a nega­tion of the mas­sive role the se­nior play­ers have played in keep­ing the Boks go­ing for­ward. If there is to be suc­cess in New Zealand next year the bulk of them will need to con­tinue driv­ing the ship.

The coach recog­nises this, as can be read from his se­lec­tion for to­day’s game against Italy. Vic­tor Mat­field is surely the player most in need of a break. But the ab­sence of John Smit and Fourie du Preez, who to­gether with Jean de Vil­liers made up the Bok tac­ti­cal brains-trust in last year’s TriNa­tions, meant it was nec­es­sary for Mat­field to lead against Italy.

What the coach has done though over the past few weeks is get right what went wrong in the last Test of the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions se­ries by in­tro­duc­ing in­form new play­ers among the old hands. In so do­ing he showed him­self that he has op­tions and he has grown the squad’s depth.

The up­shot is that he must surely now feel far more com­fort­able about life than he has at any other time in the past two years. It’s all about get­ting the bal­ance right, and the be­gin­ning stages of the 2010 sea­son sug­gest he knows that.

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