Boks full of confidence
August 17, 2007
"Having made it so close to the World Cup without politics threatening to derail their plans, South Africa will be confident of gatecrashing what many think will be New Zealand's party." Stephen Nell reports
The only significant setback thus far has been the withdrawal of star No 8 Pierre Spies, who was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs.
There was a brief glimmer of hope that Spies might make it to the World Cup after a second opinion was that he merely had a lung infection. However, a third specialist ruled that the original diagnosis was correct.
Other than that South Africa's politicians have done no more than quietly voice their discontent about the racial make-up of the overwhelmingly white squad. They are holding back in the national interest, with the fur expected to fly in the new year.
The South African Rugby Union's notorious presidents council nevertheless caused some ripples with an untimely annoucement that overseas based players would after the World Cup no longer be able to represent their country unless they came back and played domestic rugby.
However, the South African Rugby Players Association kicked up enough of a fuss for a potential disaster to be averted and this decision is now under review.
With the off-the-field shenanigans apparently under control (for now), the Boks have the quality in playing resources at their disposal to beat any side on their day.
Spies was a significant loss, but there's a school of thought that the Boks would be better off anyway with a heavier No 8 in Danie Rossouw.
South Africa also have the benefit of a good draw. That's provided they beat England, who can never be written off with their strong pack and a vastly experienced flyhalf such as Jonny Wilkinson.
Even so, Bok coach Jake White didn't see anything in England's recent warm-up defeat to France at Twickenham that had him genuinely worried.
He concurred with Brian Ashton that England wouldn't win the World Cup playing like that.
South Africa themselves will be banking on brute strength and uncompromising defence more than anything else to win this World Cup.
White is on record as saying that defence will be decisive, as it has been in previous World Cups, with teams separated by kicks.
South Africa have a brilliant lock pairing, with Bakkies Botha as physical as anyone else in the world and Victor Matfield peerless as a lineout jumper.
Captain John Smit will also be back in the fold, while veteran loosehead prop Os du Randt, the sole remaining player of the victorious 1995 World Cup-winning side, will be looking to end his Bok career on a high.
White has always placed a heavy emphasis on experience and had it not been for the cold that kept Smit out of the warm-up test against Namibia, it would have been the most experienced Bok side in history to have taken the field.
At the back they've got the steady head of fullback Percy Montgomery, who has become one of the better goalkickers in world rugby.
Jean de Villiers is a bit of a lone creative force at inside centre and the Boks will struggle to construct good attacking plays without his influence.
Having said that, White did enlist the help of former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones to refine his team's attack and it was noticeable in recent training sessions in Cape Town that there were decoy runners and finesse to some of the Bok plays.
That, however, was without any opposition in front of them. It will be interesting to see what difference Jones, as technical advisor, can effect in such a short space of time.
White has, however, enlisted in the ex-Wallaby mentor a right hand man who has been there and done that. Jones fills the void left by Rassie Erasmus, who resigned from the Bok management to pursue a coaching career with the Stomers in Cape Town.
With freaks of nature like openside flank Schalk Burger and imposing tight forwards, the Boks probably deserve their status as the side most likely to upset New Zealand.
They beat them every year from 2004 up to 2006 and usually frutrate the hell out of the Kiwis with a pressure game.
The one significant weakness in the Bok set-up is the lack of a genuine world class performer at flyhalf to partner outstanding scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.
Butch James is the man in the saddle, but he's not in the class of Wilkinson or the All Blacks' Dan Carter.
James is also injury prone, which will mean the Boks may have to resort to Andre Pretorius, who has only just recovered from a long-term injury.
Your flyhalf needs to dictate play and this will most likely be the Boks' achilles heel.
Whether they take the high or low road will most likely be determined by the outcome of their group match against England.
If they win that one, the Boks will most likely have Wales in the quarterfinals. If not, the Wallabies lie in wait.
The Boks would prefer having to negotoiate their way through northern hemisphere opposition, even though it will probably come down to a semifinal against host nation France.
Once it reaches that stage it really is anybody's game.
The Boks, however, should give a decent account of themselves. They'll go into the England game as vlear favourites and deservedly so.
South Africa have a strong pack, vast experience and can defend like demons.
They also have an ace opportunist in wing Bryan Habana.
However, in World Cups things are generallty kept tight, and South Africa are well stocked for a tight, pressure game.
Expect them to at least make the semifinals.