Bok preparation for the World Cup has already begun
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.