Boks to bloody Ireland's nose
November 23, 2009
Shall we dance? South Africa's BJ Botha and Jean Deysel celebrate their victory over Italy in Udine © Getty Images
If you had to ask South African rugby followers which test they are most likely to lose on tour, it would probably have been Saturday's clash with Ireland.
The Irish are mid-season and hell-bent on revenge for the pain inflicted on their leadership core in the British and Irish Lions series. By contrast, South Africa are virtually out on their feet and three defeats from four games on their tour suggests that they are there for the taking.
Little wonder then that the Irish team and their cheerleaders in the media have the scent of blood in their nostrils. However, I have a funny feeling, possibly born out of several years' experience of working with the Springboks, that Ireland will have their noses bloodied on Saturday.
The reason for this is very simply that Saturday offers the Boks a chance of redemption on a tour that to date can only be described as a failure.
While fatigue is being offered as an excuse - and there are valid arguments for why the likes of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, John Smit, Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn should not have been on this tour - the failures have more to do with other issues.
South Africa made some key logistical bungles, the main one being picking an unwieldy squad of 37 players and additional management members to be able to handle the additional games.
The Springbok teams that squared up to Leicester and France were simply unprepared and the situation snowballed into the Saracens game. Furthermore, it was suicidal to head into Toulouse days before the France game, which I suspect was a result of management respecting the wishes of senior players, who prefer to spend more time at home.
What would have made perfect sense for South Africa would have been to split into separate touring squads - effectively for an 'A' side with a separate management to play the English club teams. This would also have offered the national selectors the opportunity of actually picking all the players that deserved to be there on merit and not be forced into a numbers game in which the country's politicians had to be appeased.
For example, if it was anything else than politics that got Bandise Maku included as a back-up hooker, why did Adriaan Strauss (he only came into the squad later) leapfrog him into the Test line-up at the first opportunity?
Much has been made of the struggles of the South African scrum. I'm not suggesting that everything is fine, but if you constantly pick new front-row combinations and they don't have time to gel, you can't complain if you end up in reverse gear against powerful Northern Hemisphere scrums.
Gurthrö Steenkamp already got cleaned up in the Currie Cup, but still toured. Chiliboy Ralepelle hardly played in the domestic competition and Heinke van der Merwe - the loosehead that South Africa want to convert into a tighthead - had not played any rugby in eight months because of injury. Why not just pick the country's in-form players?
Ultimately, the South African scrum looked quite comfortable with a front row of Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, John Smit and BJ Botha. The latter, of course, is an overseas-based player, but perhaps it's time for the Southern Hemisphere to take a bit of a reality check and start including players irrespective of where they play their rugby. South Africa would be a much more powerful side if they add Jean de Villiers and Frans Steyn to the current squad.
That said, I still believe they are going to have too much for Ireland this weekend. South Africa found the right front-row combination (one can only hope they will pick them!) in the latter stages of the Italian Test and have their backs to the wall. They simply need to give the tour a measure of respectability, and that can only happen if they beat Ireland.
Ireland have class in many positions and my prediction of a defeat for them is not a pointer to a lack of respect. However, they don't have a front row that can pressurise the Boks, which could mean that the South Africans have a lot less pressure on them this weekend.
Furthermore, the Boks are not the world champions without good reason. They beat New Zealand three times this year and won the Tri-Nations going away. I'll go against conventional wisdom and predict that the Boks will finish their season on a high.
However, they will return from tour pondering some all-important points, such as how they will keep this brilliant crop of players fit and fresh until the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and for how much longer they can refuse to consider talent based in the Northern Hemisphere from the word go.
Stephen Nell is a rugby correspondent for the Die Burger newspaper