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Courage under Fire…

South African rugby hit an all time low yesterday with the Springboks conceding a last minute penalty to the Wallabies. No excuses here this time round, the Boks started late as they did last week, sort of got their game together and blew the Wallabies away in the second half until losing to a 55m penalty kick. The Wallabies proved on the day that they were better.  I read the papers daily. I read the blogs daily. Everyone is pointing fingers at John Smit and Peter de Villiers, our champion of champion quotation kings.  The question that arises is whether the Boks are ready for the world cup next year. Are they?

First of all let’s look at John Smit’s form. Here’s a guy that’s past his sell-by date based on the hours he has put on the field this year. Local news media are blamed for not lambasting his performance and hand over the reins to someone more capable.  “Hold on there tiger!”. I’m an avid John Smit fan. My late brother-in-law and myself used to have argument after argument about this guy.  From his side the guy was a poor player.  “They have better hookers in South Africa” was his argument. The question is, is this guy playing as a hooker or as a leader, the captain of his side. Make no bones about it, I see a difference to the team’s performance when he is off the field. He is a great captain, no, an exceptional captain and an even more exceptional leader. On and off the field. So was and most probably still is off the field, Francois Pienaar. I admire John Smit. So do many South Africans.  According to Prof. Tim Noakes, world acclaimed sports science academic and write of “Lore of Running” rugby players are spent after 1600 hours on the field – Smit has done 2000. I don’t think John Smit has had his chops.  I hear comments from my colleagues that he is overweight. Now that may be so but if anyone watched the game yesterday (4th Sept in Bloemfontein Wallabies Vs Bok, 41-39) I think his performance was still as good as ever. Should we give him his marching orders? Why not ask Morne du Plessis, Naas Botha, Chester Williams, Francois Pienaar, Percy Montgomery and Joel Stransky.

Pieter deVilliers the coach is also under fire. With his many gaffs and tongue in cheek commets the world press cannot wait for his next comment. The question is whether is capable to take his team or the next into the world cup next year. Yes, our Tri Nations record this year was a joke. Does the coach automatically become penalised for this? Unfortunately yes. Should he be fired? Maybe a bit late. I think this guy is highly charasmatic and his team support him fully.  Make no mistake, this guy has to handle a huge amount of pressure. Any person with the tiniest understanding of body language will read this guy’s nervousness when having to field the barrage of questions fielded to him after a major loss. I don’t think running to the axe is a solution – for both De Villiers and Smit. John Smit does have an excellent team. Peter deVilliers has to watch what he says. In South Africa rugby is predominantly a sport played by our Afrikaans speaking community. The passion lies there. Our English speaking community by and large accept the game for what it is. Not the Afrikaner. There’s huge money in this game and a lot at stake. Listen to the loud boos of the spectators at yesterday’s game. Obviously there is a lot of tension – and a crap load of money at stake. Now let’s move onto something completely different.

Naas Botha was a guy I hated in my younger days. He kicked the game to death.  I could not say a good word about him.  Yes, when he played for Northern Transvaal. But let him don the Bok jersey we loved this guy to pieces.  The finest piece of machinery on the field. He was nicknamed ‘Nasty Booter’ with good cause by the English.  Watch Jonny Wilkensen at his finest. You’ll know what I mean. I didn’t like Percy Montgomery in his early years. He was thin, emaciated, kicked well but to me an ordinary player. But in his final years on the field this guy was my hero. Incredibly fast and tactical player. And no longer the emaciated player he once was. Somebody knew something I didn’t. As an armchair rugby player I watched every game that Percy played in, whether he was on the bench or killing the opposition. He may not have won games but he was our hero. Just like Chester Williams and Breyton Paulse.  Still juggernauts in my mind, Like John Smit. Except John Smit is still playing.  And I sincerely hope he will continue playing until such time we have a suitable replacement. We do have possible candidates – Victor Matfield is one. But we need to be looking now at the next generation players coming out. Both Matfield and Smit will go down as some of the best captains and leaders of our time but I don’t see anyone right (that doesn’t play outside of South Africa) that could lead our team next year. Getting on in years they are – but guidance is what our players need right now.  And both Smit and Matfield give just that.

South African rugby right now is at a crossroads. We have the players but we lack the ability to change our game. The Kiwis proved just this in the Tri Nations. Fast, determined and proof that the best rugby in the world comes from New Zealand. I think we need to change our style of play. Brute strength does not always win games – in the case of Bakkies Botha this proves just such a point. That guy plays to win matches and I would hate to be on the receiving end of a head butt from this guy. But if the ball is out of the way he cannot do much damage.  The Kiwis killed the Boks team. But they didn’t come onto the field wanting to play their old set of rules. They had a whole book of new rules. And they used this to their advantage.  In the last world cup we (South Africa) have been often challenged as to whether we would have won if we had to have played the Wallabies and NZ in the first round. Guys, the truth of the matter is we made it to the finals – they didn’t.  You win some you lose some. We lost some but we won where it counts – the final.  Next year we play in New Zealand. NZ have never won a world series. This is going to make some interesting viewership.

Peter deVilliers better make sure his team are well rested. A good team they certainly are.  And very, very tired.

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