South Africa will be the team world cup favourites New Zealand shall fear most come September.
This is according to media pundits in the Southern Hemisphere and is being trumpeted particularly loudly in NZ and South Africa as based on the recent Super 14 showings of the South African franchises. Even Graham Henry is talking up the Boks – insisting their aggressive, ‘in your face’ play will create plenty of problems for the All Blacks.
On Super 14 performances alone, this could be true. For the first time in Super 14 history, two South African teams (the Bulls and Sharks) have managed to tally up a respectable amount of away wins which goes against the grain of their normally erratic away match records of the past, indicating a growth in consistency and maturity is taking form. The Springboks are also the only team in the last two years to have beaten the All Blacks, albeit if it was only on South African soil – (Cape Town 2005 and Rustenburg 2006), highlighting to all they have a way of getting under the skin of New Zealand teams, ruffling sensitive normally unchallenged feathers by playing raw aggressive rugby which often goes beyond the limits of the law.
It is often said the team that can get away with the most is more often than not – the best team. The British media for years have been arguing about the All Blacks getting away with cheating (bleu murder yes, we saw it in November – but blue murder?). If the Springboks can match the alleged bullying All Blacks at their own game – then maybe the competition to take the Webb Ellis trophy home will not be as home and dried as those predictions a year ago.
Or could they put up a strong fight? For me the jury is still out on the Springboks. I have yet to see a Bok team under Jake White play consistently in Europe. This is not to say the Boks won’t surprise, but to my mind, safer money would be with an unpredictable French team on their home strip, or a gallant Irish side led by Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell to stake out key wins. Heck – even Australia should never be written off; we have learnt too often that you ignore a wounded wallaby at your peril.
The South African style of play is old fashioned. Forward dominated 10 man rugby was dismissed after Clive Woodward’s English team fell so spectacularly in the years following the 2003 World Cup. When the Boks are not grunting away up front, it appears that interceptions are the only kind of feed they know to secure tries. It is important not to forget also that for nearly two weeks, 22 All Blacks players did not participate in the Super 14 competition due to Henry’s controversial conditioning programme. This lapse has given other teams with their internationals included a head start (and possibly a false sense of achievement).
The South African international side has been inconsistent at the best of times and downright pitiful at worst over the last few years. It is true the Boks have some key players that can win matches – what team wouldn’t want Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield and the dashing Bryan Habana? A big star waiting to be unleashed will be the precocious Francois Steyn, 20 years old this year and a certain match winner of the future who can kick drop goals from anywhere. Unless the IRB reduce the score of the three point drop goal, he will be a dangerous assassin in years to come and will almost certainly break the hearts of many a non-South African rugby supporter through his Wilkinson style of point collecting. For now his inexperience should count against him and these factors, coupled with the controversy behind the scenes in any Jake White led South African team and the fact that the Africans will not be playing on home soil for the important business end of the World Cup mean they should not be the major threat that every expert is predicting.
I do believe their time may come again, I just don’t believe it will be this year, no matter who talks them up in the process