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Arlecchino

Bill van Zyl's Twickenham Preview & SOR

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Test Match Preview

 

When the 2016 Rugby Championships ended I decided to take a break from writing about all things rugby for a couple of weeks. I had reached that saturation point where too much rugby had taken it’s toll. Too many weekends of pointless games, and far too much boring rugby required a break from the game for a while. Not that I was completely oblivious to all the goings on in the rugby world, I simply did not feel like talking about it.

 

I really enjoyed the last weeks of the Currie Cup. The Free State Cheetahs were deserved winners after an unbeaten season, although there was a certain sense of déjà vu as the Cheetahs, their Super Rugby ranks untouched by Springbok call-ups, repeated the unbeaten run enjoyed by the Lions a year earlier, when their Super Rugby squad made the same transition to Currie Cup, untouched by Springbok call-ups.

 

The Currie Cup semi-finals and the finals certainly showed me that all is not doom and gloom in the world of South African rugby. We can play open, running rugby full of excitement and enterprise when we set out minds to it. Without a doubt we are not anywhere near the standards set by the teams from New Zealand, but there is hope. All four teams involved in the semi-finals played a much more open, faster game than has been the norm from the respective unions.

 

I enjoyed watching the club rugby Gold Cup run it’s course. At one stage I was torn between three participating teams. I had coached at False Bay Rugby Club, Windhoek Wanderers, and at Pirates Rugby Club, and now all three my clubs were in the competition! It was like watching your two brothers playing the Wimbledon final against each other, who do you support?

 

In the end it was False Bay that did themselves proud with a spot in the final, albeit a runners-up medal when the final whistle sounded. Knowing the history of the club and the effort that has gone into building the Bay back to being one of the top clubs in the country, they van be very proud of that runners-up medal. Although my time at False Bay was just a short two years before I was transferred to Windhoek, it was a time that remains very special to me. The Bay is a special club, with many special people. I am proud to be associated with the club, even in a very small way.

 

I am equally proud of my other two teams, Windhoek Wanderers and Pirates! I was privileged to have been appointed to coach at both clubs, and have very special memories and friends from both. What would I have given to have seen either of those two up against the Bay in the final!

 

Three of the finest rugby clubs any coach could ever have wanted to be involved with.

 

Sadly, the news has come down the wires today of the passing of Basil Bey. Basil is one of the legends of rugby coaching, especially for the work he did with Bishops where he coached the 1st XV for 27 years, inculcating a style of rugby for which Bishops became famous. He used to say: “There are three things you can do with a rugby ball. You can run with it, you can pass it, and you can kick it.” He would then add the rider: “At Bishops we only do two of those things!”

 

Basil coached the WP Craven Week team and served as a selector for the Western Province Currie Cup team.

 

In between coaching commitments at the school he loved so dearly, he found time to coach club rugby at both UCT, his alma mater, and at False Bay, the club he joined and later captained after he graduated from UCT.

 

My own association with Basil was all too short. I worked with him for just one season in the early 1980’s when he returned to coach at False Bay where I had just been elevated to coaching the 2nd team. He was a legend, and I was very much in awe of his knowledge and coaching style. He was always ready to share his experience and knowledge and did not hesitate to pass on anything he thought would help. I absorbed the things he taught me like a sponge. I could never hope to know as much about the game of rugby as did Basil Bey.

 

At that time, I once spent an afternoon watching U/20 rugby with Gus Enderstein, another legendary schools rugby coach from the Western Province, and Basil’s great friend and rival at the time. Gus coached Rondebosch Boys High, the team against which Basil’s Bishops play their annual derby match. The rivalry between the two schools is enshrined as one of the traditions of schools rugby, and the two coaches were friends, and rivals!

 

I told Gus that I was learning so much from Basil, and Gus answered: “When Basil talks, you would do well to just shut up and listen!”

 

Thank you Basil, you were one of the greats.

 

As we say good bye to Basil, my thoughts turn to the current issues in South African rugby, especially the dearth of qualified, experienced coaches.

 

I watched the coaching indaba of two weeks ago with a certain amount of cynicism. A gathering of all the Super Rugby coaches in South Africa, the National coaching squad, some provincial coaches, a couple of players, some ex-players, the media, the referees, lots and lots of administrators and officials. They were going to talk about the issues and problems South African teams have in the modern game. They were going to come up with a “plan” that would help take South African rugby back to the top of the world rankings.

 

Some big names, critical ones, with much to contribute to the long-term solutions of South Africa’s rugby problems and issues were conspicuous in their absence. Most previous national coaches were absent. No Nick Mallett, no Jake White, no Heyneke Meyer, no Pieter de Villiers, no Andre Markgraaf….. In fact just two ex-Bok coaches were there, Carel Du Plessis and Ian MacIntosh. (Oh, and Rudolf Straueli, but he was there as an administrator.)

 

Surely, for all their faults, those ex-Bok coaches have an enormous depth of experience, knowledge and skills that they could and should share with those plotting the future of South African rugby? Why are we not learning from them? Why are their talents ignored or wasted?

 

I watched the Indaba develop, and listened to the media statements and announcements, and realised that the Indaba was really a waste of time.

 

They could talk as much as they wanted, they could plan and postulate, they could do war cries and star jumps if they wanted to, but they were tackling the entire problem from the wrong perspective!

 

The issues that South African Rugby needs to resolve are not capable of being addressed at the top playing level of the game. There is no point in suggesting that all the Super Rugby teams will start to play a “similar” style of rugby. This solves nothing, as it is an artificial response to a real problem. It is an elastoplast strip covering a huge wound. The solution to South Africa’s archaic style of unimaginative crash/bash rugby is not found in the Super Rugby franchises, it needs to start much much lower down in the very roots of out game, and that is where the problem must be resolved.

 

The very seeds of our game need to be replanted.

 

South Africa finished a distant third in the Rugby Championships. Their final fixture against New Zealand was a dire affair, if you are a South African supporter.

 

New Zealand scored 9 tries, and South Africa didn’t. Score a try, that is! The truth is South Africa never even looked like scoring a try, and New Zealand looked as if they could have score more, if they really tried hard.

 

South African rugby supporters seemed shell-shocked by the result. They should not have been shocked, they should not be surprised. This result was looming on the horizon since the end of last year’s Rugby World Cup, and it was getting closer and closer with each passing week.

 

Why is South African Rugby in such a poor state?

 

We can start with the traditional South African sob story of poor refereeing decisions, or perhaps we can blame the wind? We can blame Lady Luck, transformation, politics, injuries to key players. We can hammer on about Allister Coetzee’s impossible task of coaching a national side in a decidedly fractious nation. We can comment on the late appointment of the coach and the fact that he was not allowed to choose his own coaching assistants, perhaps even the team he would prefer to coach.

 

We can talk about poor game plans, odd selections, weird tactics. We can hammer on about the loss of quality players to France, Japan, England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, and Australia. We can suggest that the players lack passion and are unfit. We can find fault with the entire system that produces Springbok rugby players. We can blame Super Rugby, and we can blame Currie Cup rugby for player fatigue and staleness.

 

We can find a reason, perhaps many reasons, for South Africa’s lamentable rugby performances during 2016.

 

Perhaps there is an element of truth in each such reason. Yet no single reason on it’s own stands head and shoulders above the rest as the chief cause for the current state of Springbok Rugby.

 

Most importantly, there is no point in playing the Blame Game!

 

There is no point in wagging fingers and spouting bile at all and sundry. The anger, the disappointment, the desire for a scapegoat are all understandable, yet none of those emotions or desires serve any purpose.

 

This is not the time to look back and find someone to blame. Much like biblical Lot’s wife and her transition to a salt pillar, looking back serves no purpose whatsoever. It is time to look forward and find the solutions that South African Rugby desperately needs.

 

Yes, we do need to identify what is wrong, in order to be able to fix it. We also need to identify what works, and avoid implementing knee-jerk fix-it solutions to that which is not broken.

 

We also need to recognize that solutions to issues and problems in South African rugby will not provide instant results. This has to be a long-term project, from seeds to roots, to stems and branches until we can finally reap the fruits.

 

The problems in South African Rugby have been evident for a long time. These are horses that have been flogged over and over again. Some are dead, hopefully we can flog the rest to death too!

 

Where to begin?

 

The malaise that affects Springbok Rugby starts at the very top of the game. It starts with the South African Rugby Union’s national executive and the CEO and his operational leadership. Those that occupy the Executive suites at SARU Head Quarters have an awful lot to answer for.

 

The entire system of governance is flawed, with smaller unions, their elected officials and amateur administrators wielding far too much power in a professional game. Decisions are taken in a parochial way that most usually places provincial union requirements ahead of national needs.  And then there are the personal agendas of the administrators and their oft hidden support bases. We like to speak of “state capture” by certain commercial enterprises, but there is a truth in suggesting “rugby capture” too.

 

The high-profile of South African sports administrators is unique to the world of sport.

 

Where else in the world do you find the president of a sporting body and the various administrative officials becoming household names and celebrities? Where else do you find administrators hogging the headlines and taking precedence over on-field activities? This is not unique to SA Rugby, it is common across all our sporting activities. Where else in the world does the contingent of administrators, coaches, technical advisors, and gravy train riders outnumber the actual athletes attending the Olympic Games?

 

At the root of this South African style is a squabble for power and the trappings of celebrity importance that accompany that power. This is evident across all sports.

 

I will focus only on Rugby.

 

The previous President of SARU and the CEO, a paid employee, had been at odds for some time, with the CEO somehow having the tacit support of the smaller unions and thus wielding the real power within South African Rugby. A paid employee who has more power than the elected Board? Oregan Hoskins eventually resigned as President and was replaced by Mark Alexander of Western Province (and Stormers) loyalty. Will things be different under Mr Alexander? I somehow doubt it.

 

The question has to be asked, how was Jurie Roux appointed as CEO without being interviewed by the Board and the President? Why was he appointed whilst the legal action by Stellenbosch University was hanging over his head? How did he become the boss?

 

It is glaringly obvious that there is, and has long been, a complete disconnect between SARU’s paid administrators and the smaller unions on one side, and the major rugby unions and franchises on the other. The amateurs are ruling the roost. At the moment the tail is wagging the dog. The national team, or teams, have simply not enjoyed the absolute priority they deserve in order to cultivate and nurture success.

 

Any hope of repairing Springbok Rugby has to start at the very top. SARU needs to reconsider its priorities, it’s focus, and it’s commitment to the development of South African Rugby at every level of the game. The very structure of governance of our game needs to be reconsidered and reworked.

 

Rugby administration has to be fully professional. The entire focus must be on producing the very best rugby team in the world, and it has to start from the very bottom level of the game.

 

As I mentioned earlier, it has to start with the very seeds of rugby, at the most junior levels of the game. Much like planting an apple seed, the rugby seed must be sprouted at the most junior level, and then the young seedling must be fed, supported, guided, nurtured, and grown into a sapling. The Rugby sapling must be staked and pruned, given the nutrition it needs, guided, and nurtured into a young tree with strong roots.

 

Once the young tree has formed, the work is not yet done. No farmer looks for an instant crop from his young trees! He picks off the young fruits just after there are formed and drops them, so that the young tree can continue to grow strong and true, with all the sunlight, the nutrition, and the water focused on growth and not on fruit production. He knows that he is building for the future.

 

Only after the tree is fully formed and strong does the farmer allow the crop of fruit to set and grow, still nurturing, still guiding, Still irrigating, weeding, spraying and pruning, until he can harvest a good crop as reward for all his efforts. If he has done his job properly, that fruit tree will continue to provide good crops for many years to come.

 

And he will have problems along the way! Sometimes the sun will be too hot, sometimes it will not be hot enough. Sometimes there will be a drought, or perhaps far too much rain. The orchard might be invaded by insects, fungus, disease, or even fruit thieves.

 

Rugby is no different to an apple tree.

 

Let’s consider the issues the SARU Apple farmers need to take into consideration.

 

1. Start at the bottom.

 

The malaise that infects South African Rugby might be caused by those at the very top of the game, but the solution begins at the very bottom of the ladder, at Junior Rugby level.

 

If I may go back to my example of the apple seed. If the root system of an apple tree is poorly developed, perhaps even diseased, then the tree itself will be weak and the fruit will be of poor quality.

 

If the roots of South African Rugby are poor, then the tree will be weak, and the fruits of poor quality. We need to start repairing South African Rugby right at the very roots.

 

Rugby has long been perceived as the sport of the privileged classes. It has been the sport played by children from the more privileged ranks of South African society. It is still seen as being in the realm of the private schools, or the overwhelmingly racially white schools. It has also been seen as an essentially Afrikaans school sport, although not exclusively so.

 

Rugby is not a simple game, at the very roots it still requires an oddly shaped ball and players that play in specialist positions. You need forwards and backs, you need big guys and little ‘uns. Rugby is a physical game and players take knocks and scrapes. It has rules that are often confusing to kids who are not brought up in the game. You need someone who knows the rules to referee a game. Even a pick-up game needs someone to control it.

 

Soccer is so different. It uses a round ball, any round ball will do. It can be played by anyone. The rules are simple and easy to understand. It can be played anywhere. You do not need a referee for a game of street soccer. And, at the lowest levels, it is not a physical game that results in bruises, aches and pains.

 

The perception is thus that rugby is a somewhat exclusive game and that it is not available to everyone. These are perceptions that need to be changed. The game of rugby needs to be encouraged amongst the broader public as a game for everyone, right from the moment a child, a potential rugby player, is born. This is the seed moment.

 

The argument that the game is too difficult for young kids to understand is rubbished by the success of rugby in New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa and elsewhere where it is the sport of choice for most youngsters. Plant the seed early and it will take root, anywhere.

 

Who and how that seed must be planted remains a subject for some debate. I personally believe that it is incumbent upon the National Department of Sport & Recreation, the equivalent Provincial Departments, together with SARU and the individual member unions to develop a cogent and mutually supportive program to introduce and develop the game of rugby at the very grass roots levels of our country.

 

I would suggest that local schools, perhaps Education Departments, need to be involved through the provision of facilities, the provision of qualified coaches, and the provision of constant, ongoing guidance. In addition to action by Government bodies and SARU, I would suggest that local rugby clubs could and should be involved in mentoring and supporting initiatives at the schools.

 

The program must be developed and implemented as widely as possible, with special focus on those lesser-privileged areas where the game is currently almost unknown.

 

Such a wide cast program instantly solves every single “transformation” requirement any politician or social activist could ever demand of the sport.

 

It must start with the pikkies! It must start right down at the moment the seed is planted and the seedling sprouts from the seedbed.

 

2. Nurture those seedlings and saplings!

 

The seedling to sapling stage is equally critical. This is the feeding, supporting, guiding, nurturing, growth stage.

 

The much like an apple seedling, the rugby seedling must be fed the right kind of food. I am alluding to feeding the youngsters on the right kind of rugby skills and mindsets from the very earliest moments of their development. An intense focus on skills should be the very foundation of this nurturing action.

 

This is the moment when a common national style of rugby is born. If all those seeds are fed the same mix of nutrition, the same amount of water, and given the same access to sunlight and rain, then the chances are that many will grow up with the same focus.

 

Right down at the seedling level of rugby development we do run into another of the sport’s undeniable issues. Rugby is a physical game and it includes physical contact, often very high impact physical contact. In our modern world there are many many people who have a complete aversion to any kind of contact sport, none more so than mothers of young kids who are nervous, scared even, of the damage contact sport might do to their little Johnny.

 

This fear has been compounded during recent times by the very legitimate concern that high impact rugby might have a serious impact on players in their later lives. I, for one, have frequently written of this issue.

 

Again, I do believe that, at junior schools level, the fears are unfounded and unnecessary. More so if the introductory levels of rugby development focus on ball skills, running skills, and the development of the correct mindset for playing attractive rugby. Games such as touch rugby; tag rugby, grid games, channel games and the like can develop rugby skills in a safe yet competitive environment.

 

3. Overcome the current win-at-all-costs mentality.

 

Once the seedling has grown to a sapling, Rugby still has another problem that needs resolution! Rugby at schools level has become overly competitive with the prevalence of a “must-win” mentality over all other considerations. Rugby must never lose its competitive flavour, but when the competitive flavour becomes a win-at-all-costs philosophy, there is a very real danger that the game will stagnate.

 

The better South African schools compete for student numbers in something of an open market. The school’s facilities, their academic, cultural and sporting records are all critical components in the marketing of the school to prospective parents. A winning rugby team is seen by many as a primary marketing tool. Much effort goes into building athat winning team. Full-time professional coaches, full time administrators, and support staff are the norm.

 

The problem in South Africa is manifest in the constant efforts by various schools to poach players with possible talent.

 

In my own experience I have watched the predatory talent scouts from bigger schools wandering around the preparatory school rugby festivals and games, identifying talent and “poaching” them for their employers. The focus is on growing a successful rugby team at all costs.

 

This talent poaching system is a double-edged sword. On the one hand the kid who has been identified as potentially talented is given the opportunity of attending one of the bigger, more established rugby schools. He will receive professional coaching and mentoring. He might even receive an adequate education. This is good. The downside is found in a youngster being brought into a schools rugby system that is intensely competitive and focuses on success rather than enjoyment.

 

Watching top-level senior schools rugby used to be one of the pleasures of any rugby aficionados life. Rugby, played for the sheer enjoyment of the game, with speed, skills and excitement at the very core. Sadly, the ethos of rugby for enjoyment has slowly but surely been eroded by an ethos that seeks victory at all costs.

 

There is nothing sadder than to hear a coach bellowing out “Kick it! Kick it! Get out of our 22!” at a youngster who wants to run with the ball in hand. There is nothing worse than the imposition of low-risk rugby as the only option for a school team. We need more Basil Beys, lots more.

 

When a school coach punches the referee after his team loses, the whole ethos of the game is wrong. When a schoolboy punches and opponent on the field of play, there is something very wrong with the game, and it is even worse when the on-field aggression flows off the field after the final whistle.

 

Parents are equally to blame for the overly competitive ethos of the modern school game. I have witnessed fathers yelling at referees, at opponents, and even ranting at their own children. I have watched fathers telling sons to take out opponents. I have seen a father run onto the field to confront his son’s opponent. This is wrong.

 

There is something very seriously wrong when parents become involved in off-field altercations about school sport. Fathers tackling fathers in fisticuffs, about schools rugby!

 

There is nothing more soul destroying than a complete focus on winning, rather than paying the game for fun!

 

We need to break that win-at-all-costs mentality. We need to find a way to encourage participation for the sheer joy of playing the game, of developing and exercising skills, while ensuring ongoing competitive rugby. I do not have all the answers, yet I am sure we can solve this problem. Perhaps encouraging scoring tries by means of bonus points, or perhaps higher value tries as has been an experiment in the Varsity rugby competitions?

 

4. Develop, implement, and maintain continuity.

 

Perhaps the single biggest strength of New Zealand’s rugby is the continuity within game at every level. There is a continuity of style. Everyone plays a similar style of rugby, focused on the basic skills, speed, and surprise. Exceptional talent is allowed to develop in it’s own direction, but within the style of rugby New Zealanders play.

 

There is a continuity of purpose. All New Zealanders have one thing in common, they want to see their national teams win. They are a small country that punches way above it’s weight in word rugby. There is only one way that a small country can maintain it’s position as a world leader, and that is if everyone is pulling in the same direction.

 

In South African terms this will be a massive challenge, and may very well be the rock on which this ship tears it’s bottom out.

 

Continuity of purpose is almost impossible in the fractious environment that is South African Rugby. Witness the simple fact that our provinces and franchises all play different styles of rugby. In each case, at the beginning of each new season there is much talk about embracing a “new” style of rugby, and in most cases the province or franchise rapidly sinks back into old habits.

 

Look at the conflicts at board and administrative level and we see more of the divisive than we seem commonality. The evident disconnect between major unions and minor unions, the disconnect between the elected officials that are appointed to run the game, and the paid employees who think the game belongs to them.

 

If we cannot find a common purpose, there is no chance of finding continuity of style either.

 

This is the single biggest challenge facing SA Rugby.

 

5. Long Term Planning.

 

When Heyneke Meyer selected his side to go to the 2015 World Cup he took along 18 players over the age of 29, of which Victor Matfield was the oldest at 38. He included just 9 players under the age of 25 in his squad. He chose to ignore a number of exciting, talented youngsters who would have walked into any other national team in the world.

 

If ever there was a sad indictment of a coach who eschewed long-term succession planning in his quest to avoid defeat it is contained in the above figures. Suffice to say that his decision to play super-safe rugby with old soldiers meant that he had no attack plan whatsoever, and it all went horribly wrong in that semi-final against New Zealand where South Africa simply never looked like scoring a try.

 

If we want to repair South African rugby and build something remarkable for the future, we critically need to focus on two important aspects of long term planning.

 

              a)   Succession Planning.

 

We must take a leaf out of the All Blacks book. When a whole battalion of their old soldiers retired at the end of 2015, two battalions of young replacements were waiting in the wings.

 

As Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and others rode off into the sunset, Sam Cane, Beauden Barret, Aaron Cruden, Richard Crotty, Charlie Ngatai, Ardie Savea, Malakai Fekitoa, and a host of other youngsters were ready to take the field. Each had been blooded in the All Black jersey, each had been part of the overall training squad, each had been inculcated in the ethos, traditions and expectations of All Black rugby.

 

Most important, each knew exactly what his role would be and what was expected of him.

 

That is success planning of the highest order. And we can already see the next generation of All Blacks being groomed – Damien McKenzie and Anton Leinert-Brown have both already earned their All Black caps, and will grown in the squad and in the family that is All Black Rugby.

 

South Africa has no such succession planning system, or ethos. This is perhaps our single biggest failing as a rugby nation.

 

          b)  Player Retention

 

Far too many of South Africa’s younger talented players are being allowed to slip away from local rugby. We know that something of the order of 650 South African born players are plying their professional, semi-professional, and amateur rugby trade outside the borders of the country. We know that the top two French leagues have no less than 74 South African players involved. Almost all of those players are easily of the caliber and quality needed in Super Rugby.

 

Numerous South African born players can be found in the top leagues of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the USA and Canada, and even in Australia and New Zealand.

 

We also know that further down in the French leagues a host of other South Africans can be found. You find even more in the clubs of Europe and the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world.

 

This is a pool of talent that South Africa would love to have back home.

 

South Africa has to find a way to keep those players at home.

 

Steve Hansen is on record saying that the “Golden Goose” of New Zealand rugby is their central player contracting systems. Players are contracted to the New Zealand Rugby Union and then allocated to the franchise or province where they play their rugby. The central union pays most or all of their salaries.

 

This gives the New Zealand Rugby Union a contractual and financial hold over the players and allows the national coaching squad to monitor and influence the amount of rugby every player participates in. If they want to rest a player, they can do so. If they need a player to take time out, they can ensure that he does.

 

This system ensures that players are forced to take time off at the end of the season, to rest and recuperate. They cannot simply go off to Japan or France, England or Italy for a couple of months of extra rugby (and the extra income) at the end of the regular rugby season on New Zealand.

 

It is a case of Country before Club or Player.

 

Compare this to the South Africans who stream north to play a month or two in Japan, or at clubs in Europe during the southern off-season, undoubtedly boosting their earnings, but to the detriment of their recuperation and recovery from an already overly intense rugby season. We have seen and felt the damage this does to players when the Super Rugby season recommences and they arrive home straight into the rehabilitation wards with injuries picked up in their “off season” rugby games.

 

In South Africa the players are contracted to the individual unions and the SARU coaching squad have no real, enforceable influence over the player’s career and workload.

 

Enough!

 

I will be spending more time thinking about potential solutions to South Africa’s rugby issues in the weeks ahead. Suffice to say that we need some serious remedial measures – from the top down, and form the bottom up.

 

It is Test Match Time again:

 

 

 

Test Match Preview:

 

 

Date: Saturday, November 12

Venue: Twickenham

Time: 14:30 local (14:30 GMT)

Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)

Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Andrew Brace (Ireland)

TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)

 

The Doom & Gloom Brigade, otherwise known as your average South African Rugby supporter, are out in force today. They are predicting a rugby apocalypse, a disaster of Titanic proportions or even a Noahaic deluge of sorts. South African Rugby is at the bottom of the pit, and has started digging.  The English are going to pound South Africa to a pulp and then run amok. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, if fact there is no tunnel in sight yet.

 

Lest we forget – Just a short year ago England were standing on the very edge of the same rugby abyss. They had been dumped from their own World Cup, the one they had confidently and loudly predicted they would win. Their team was in disarray and their supporters were less than happy. Their coach had resigned and the storm clouds had gathered. How would they ever catch up with Southern Hemisphere rugby?

 

Six months later, under the tutelage of one Eddie The Evil Garden Gnome, they have beaten Australia and are Number Two in the world! Eddie was making noises about thumping the All Blacks in their own back garden! The English rose garden is blooming again.

 

The Springboks do arrive at Twickenham with something of a mountain to climb. Their confidence is at an all time low. 2016 has not been an easy season, with a new coach and coaching style; a host new and hugely inexperienced players; zero succession planning by the previous coaching regime; leadership and captaincy issues; selection issues; game plan issues; devastating injuries to key players; and the general malaise that has crept into South African rugby.

 

Add in the obviously visible fatigue after a very long mentally and physically demanding rugby season that started 11 months ago and is not finished yet. Now add in the enormous pressure of media and supporter expectation, and the rabid condemnation that follows any performance that is construed as less than perfect.

 

Finally, consider the impact of the unwanted and much maligned obligatory end-of-year tour to the north that requires southern teams that are dead on their feet to go and play test match rugby against teams that have just started their rugby season. (Small wonder then that the Irish knocked over the All Blacks?)

 

You will begin to understand the size of the mountain that awaits the men in Green and Gold when they take to the field on Saturday. This is a game they could do without.

 

Allister Coetzee appears to have decided that muscle and physicality will overcome fatigue and a wayward game plan. He has gone for bulk and power rather than subtlety in selecting his team for Twickenham.

 

Just one new face, Cheetahs captain and centre Francois Venter will make his debut in the Bok jersey at outside centre, pairing up with Damian de Allende in the midfield.

 

The rest of the team is pretty predictable, with Pat Lambie starting his first test back in the flyhalf berth since his concussion against Ireland some six months ago.

 

The loose-forward dilemma causes some headaches, with the likes of Francois Louw, Marcell Coetzee, Siya Kolisi, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Duane Vermeulen, Jaco Kriel, Schalk Burger, Roelof Smit and a host of others either injured, unavailable due to contractual issues, or seemingly out of favour.

 

Coetzee has telegraphed his intentions to play the game hard and close by selecting Pieter-Steph du Toit on the side of the scrum in partnership with Willem Alberts. Whilst du Toit is a lock who can play on the flank where his bulk yet exceptional mobility and considerable ball carrying abilities can be valuable, the choice of Alberts tells us that the plan is to play it close. Willem Alberts is not known for subtlety and skill in his approach to the game. He is a monstrous tackler and a crash-ball specialist.

 

Warren Whiteley is chosen at 8 with a cursory nod in the direction of possibly playing the odd ball out wide. I am guessing he is really there for his enormous defence rather than his ball carrying ability.

 

Switching South Africa’s Rugby Player Of The Year from lock to flank allows Coetzee the luxury of starting Lood de Jager in the second row alongside Eben Etzebeth. Three of the world’s best young locks will be starting the game, giving the Boks lineout options aplenty and considerable bulk in the tight-loose.

 

In what some might view as a retrogressive step, Adriaan Strauss continues as captain and hooker despite his looming retirement from the game. I would have preferred to see young Malcolm Marx start the game to gain some valuable experience in a game that is of less importance than some others.

 

Vincent Koch starts at tighthead prop, so Lourens Adriaanse sits on the bench. Tendai Beast Mtawarira will start at loosehead, with Steven Kisthoff coming off the bench.

 

The halfback combination of Paige and Lambie are kept unchanged from the BaaBaas game a week ago.

 

JP Pietersen returns on the wing in the number 11 jersey, while Ruan Combrinck comes back on the right wing, and Willie le Roux returns at full-back.

 

This is probably the best side available to the Springboks at this time, considering the number of potential players out with injury or contractual commitments elsewhere in the world.

 

Eddie Jones has three new faces in his side for this game.

 

Elliot Daly earns his first cap at outside centre, with Jonny May outside him on the wing. Tom Wood will wear the 7 jersey for the first time since Jones took over as coach.

 

Other possible debutants are prop Kyle Sinckler, centre Ben Te’o and number eight Nathan Hughes. All three are on the bench for this game.

 

Jones has responded to the size of the South African pack of forwards with an equally imposing pack of his own.

 

The loose trio of Billy Vunipola, Tom Wood, and Chris Robshaw are big and robust players who specialize in playing close in and around the fringes. There is no wide-ranging whippet amongst this trio.

 

The tight five are equally big men, Cole, Hartley and Mako Vunipola are a solid front three, and Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are as good a second row as any.

 

Amongst the backs England feature the solidity and counter attacking skills of Mike Brown, with the pace and mongrel of Marland Yarde out wide. The rest of their backs are solid rugby players, good ball carriers, without any exceptionally skilled runners.

 

Teams:

 

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Willem Alberts, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

 

Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Johan Goosen, 23 Lionel Mapoe

 

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Mako Vunipola

 

Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jonathan Joseph

 

Prediction:

 

Much has been made of South Africa’s poor form and lack of confidence in 2016. The English press has been full of suggestions that “Springboks are ripe for the plucking” and “England to end ten year drought” and the like.

 

There is no doubt that England will go into the game high on confidence. They have had a run of 9 undefeated games under Eddie Jones, including their series win over a struggling Australia and their Grand Slam in the Six Nations. They will certainly be looking for a first win over South Africa since 2006 when they run out at Twickenham on Saturday.

 

There is also no doubt that the Springboks have had a very poor run of late. They have won just 4 and lost 5 of their last nine test matches. Most recently they bent the knee to a superb All Blacks outfit in the final fixture of the Rugby Championships.

 

That embarrassing 57-15 loss to New Zealand in Durban is a monkey the South Africans are carrying on their collective backs, and their home media and supporters are not letting them forget that the monkey needs feeding! Nothing less than a win over England will be acceptable to their unforgiving support base.

 

I am also equally sure that the Springboks will be carrying a second monkey into this game. The fatigue and staleness of an intensive eleven-month rugby season cannot be wished away. The knocks and bruises, the contusions and sprains have accumulated and will be extracting their toll too.

 

Whilst Allister Coetzee seems to have gone with bigger being better in his selections, with the belief that this game will be an arm-wrestle, I believe that this game will revolve around mental toughness and resilience rather than pure physicality.

 

South Africa will need to show mental fortitude and resolve more than anything else as they take on England. I have no doubt they have the talent and game skills, if not the form, in the 23 chosen for the day, but do they have the mongrel to raise their game after a long, tough, and draining year?

 

England have discovered a fiery edge that has been missing for a very long time. Whether this is Eddie Jones’ influence or whether it is as a result of some other influences I do not know, but they seem to be a tougher more focused group than they were during the build up to last year’s disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign.

 

They also have some very god rugby players in their squad. Billy Vunipola has found new direction in his game under Jones, Owen Farrell is starting to look the part at centre, while Dylan Hartley has surprised everyone with his self-discipline since being handed the captain’s armband.

 

Owen Farrell’s boot will be an important weapon for England on Saturday too, but he will need to cope with the powerful straight running of Damian de Allende in the opposite centre berth. Will his defence hold up?

 

We are told that it will be a wet day. If it's raining we can expect the ball to be given some air, bringing Mike Brown and Willie le Roux into the game. Brown is a reliable fullback, while Willie le Roux has had his ups and downs. When le Roux is on song there are probably only one or two other fullbacks in the world that are in his class, but if he is having a wobbly day it could be bad news for the Boks.

 

I can see this game deteriorating into a muddy arm wrestle if the rain persists, and the English are more experienced and better adapted to those conditions than the men from the southern tip of Africa.

 

If the weather gods hold back the rain for a while and the game can open up I can see South Africa being slightly better off, simply because both Warren Whitely and Pieter-Steph du Toit like to play out wide when the game speeds up.

 

The English confidence might be on a ten year high, but I do not see this game being much more than a slug-fest. I do not expect to see silky skills and superb ball handling. I do not expect to see line breaks and off-loads. I expect to see dour rugby.

 

And I expect England to win, simply because the South Africans will run out of legs in the last 20 minutes as the fatigue of too much rugby bites. Even a recovery of form cannot prevent fatigue. I would suggest England to win by around 8 points.

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