Springboks too good to fail
Stephen Nell
June 7, 2010
South Africa try scorer Juan de Jongh holds the Prince William Cup, Wales v South Africa, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, June 5, 2010
Juan de Jongh celebrates with the Prince William Cup © Getty Images

If there is one useful lesson South Africa learned from their experience of 2004, it's not to talk up a so-called Grand Slam tour.

As Springbok coach Peter De Villiers recently said, it only becomes a Grand Slam tour once you have won all four games against Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. But having watched a virtual second string South African side beat Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, I have to say that I'm looking forward to joining the Springboks on this year's Grand Slam tour!

I can't help wonder what Saturday's result did for the Springbok psyche and, conversely, that of Wales. South Africa were at their most vulnerable on the weekend following the Super 14 final and had suffered major disruptions with the forced withdrawal of Butch James and an injury to Andries Bekker.

Yet the Boks weathered the initial storm and beat Wales a lot more comfortably than the final scoreline suggested. The WRU made their quick buck, but at what price to their team's battered morale?

South Africa, on the other hand, are laughing all the way to the bank. Not only are they sharing in the financial windfall, but they also showed off their strength with a team that was chucked together at indecent haste. It was not a Test I was looking forward to as a South African. I had lived the pain of unnecessary defeat against Wales in 1999 when South Africa were disrupted with political mayhem in the build-up to the Test that opened the Millennium Stadium.

It all centred on former coach Nick Mallett's refusal to budge on his selection of an all-white team. That team was the last South African one with 15 white players in the starting line-up. Eleven years on in a democratic South Africa it's a different picture. Not only does the country's declining and aging white population mean that tapping into the previously largely unexplored black player base is essential to South African rugby's survival, but we are also coming to terms with professionalism in the game.

More rugby unions have established good youth structures and far from expecting South African rugby to take a significant dip in coming years, I expect the Boks to continue being a powerful force even when John Smit, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez hang up their boots after next year's World Cup.

My only concern about rugby in the southern hemisphere compared to the northern hemisphere is the scrum. The Springboks struggled there against Wales on Saturday again, though I would hasten to add that we can't be all that bad when the likes of Wian du Preez and Heinke van der Merwe recently found Irish homes. I can't claim to be an expert on rugby in the northern hemisphere, but Springbok coach De Villiers was pretty forthright on Monday when he expressed concern that South Africans playing their trade overseas were off the pace in the Wales game.

This was a clear reference to Frans Steyn and Joe van Niekerk. The former did not contribute significantly other than his long-range penalty and De Villiers pointed out that he's not the only South African capable of that kind of kicking. Griquas fullback Riaan Viljoen also has that as a party trick.

Van Niekerk was also considered the weakest link in a Bok loose forward combination where his 51 caps were in stark contrast to the one shared between Dewald Potgieter and debutant Francois Louw.

The recent Super14 final between the Bulls and Stormers also underpinned the strength of South African rugby. Apart from the rugby, the final in Soweto proved a wonderful experience as the Bulls' largely white venue support base converged on South Africa's biggest township.

I was in the media bus and it was wonderful to see people across racial and class barriers having a good time together. The circumstances were forced by the Bulls' stronghold of Loftus Versfeld not being available due to it being under Fifa's control for the Soccer World Cup.

However, the Bulls seized the opportunity to enter a new market and the outcome was a nation-building experience similar to the Rugby World Cup of 1995. As for the so-called Grant Slam tour at the end of the year, I'm looking forward to it a great deal as I'm sure the Springboks are.

I was there when England ended South Africa's record-equalling run of 17 consecutive test victories at a cold Twickenham in 1998. It was no fun typing the news of England's 13-7 win with my frozen fingers. In hindsight I believe that Test was already lost earlier on tour in Edinburgh when Mallett dropped André Venter and Franco Smith to accommodate Bob Skinstad and Christian Stewart in his team.

De Villiers is a man more in touch with the chemistry in his side and far less likely to drop the ball. He's planning for the next World Cup, which will mean that key Springboks are likely to miss this year's Currie Cup until the semi-final stage.

The South African selectors will then pick the majority of the anticipated World Cup squad to tour the northern hemisphere and there aren't likely to be any fatigue issues. Of course, the Springboks will respect whatever comes along their way, but as Saturday again demonstrated, the South Africans needn't hold any fear. I'm not sure the same can be said of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England.

Stephen Nell is the rugby correspondent for the Rapport newspaper in South Africa

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