Tone down the Loftus hype

Gavin Rich

If anyone tries to peddle you the line that Saturday’s Rugby Championship finale in Pretoria is a crucial moment in the build-up to next year’s World Cup please inform them that they are talking bollocks.

Come to think of it, don’t let them sell you the line that the Springboks need to beat the All Blacks to win the World Cup either. The team that Jake White coached to World Cup glory in 2007 didn’t beat the Kiwis to win it.

It is true the Boks will have to play the All Blacks in Japan next year in a pool game. But since when did a pool stage game become a knock-out fixture? The Boks can lose to New Zealand in September and then, with a bit of admittedly unlikely help from others, they can beat another sequence of teams to win the World Cup in October.

But that’s not the main thrust of why I think all this preoccupation with the World Cup is bollocks. I will get to my central point by asking where Frans Steyn was the day that the Boks beat the All Blacks in Rustenburg in their last clash with the Kiwis before the start of the 2007 World Cup year?

I actually have no clue, but I do know that he wasn’t playing for the Boks. We are talking late September 2006, a time when Steyn was just starting to be noticed playing Currie Cup rugby for the Sharks. He was just a precocious kid with promise then, he was a long way from the player who stepped into the breach created by Jean de Villiers’ injury at the World Cup 12 months later.

Steyn was and still is a freaky talent but he is far from the only example of a player who became much more in a World Cup year than what he was in the year that preceded it. Think Lood de Jager, who was considered a fringe player when he made his international debut as a replacement in 2014 but became the star Bok of the 2015 World Cup year.

What happened to the players that were part of the Bok win in Rustenburg? That’s a good question, for in some cases the answers show just how much water may still have to flow beneath the bridge before either of the two Loftus protagonists can be sure of what they will be presenting in Japan.

From memory, AJ Venter was there, but didn’t feature in the World Cup. Andre Pretorius, who kicked the penalty to win that game, was at the World Cup, but not as a first-choice player. The starting flyhalf was in fact Butch James, who was mostly on the fringes, at best, for most of that World Cup cycle. Jaco van der Westhuyzen was White’s first-choice flyhalf for his first two years in charge.

Just to prove that there are many different ways to skin a cat, 2007 was a year where much of the momentum for the later World Cup success was created by the success that two local franchises, the Bulls and the Sharks, enjoyed in what was then the Super 14. James did produce a solid 60 minutes in a Test against England later in 2006 before being injured, but it was his performances in the Super 14 that booked him his prime spot at the World Cup in France.

Given how South African teams have struggled in the competition recently it might seem unlikely that we see a repeat of 2007, but the point is it could happen. Super Rugby could also throw curve balls in the form of injuries. As could the coming end-of-year tour.

At the corresponding stage of 2014, when the Boks scored what was to be their solitary win of the Heyneke Meyer era against the All Blacks, Jean de Villiers was fit and healthy and in top form as a team leader. Then came a crippling injury on the November tour and he was ruled out of rugby for much of the World Cup year. When he did return there were doubts about his readiness to play, and when he got onto the field he looked like a passenger.

Going much further back, there are many South African and overseas examples proving that a lot can change, and can change quite late, in the build-ups of the contending World Cup teams without costing them their chance of winning.

One of the players who starred for the All Blacks in the tight 2011 final was away on a fishing trip just days before that game, Hennie le Roux only moved to centre to accommodate Joel Stransky at flyhalf at the start of the 1995 World Cup, and Michael Catt’s appearances at inside centre for the England team that won in 2003 were also not the product of long-term planning.

Yes, Loftus is a huge game, but building it up as a World Cup dress rehearsal is to ignore the twists of fate and the peaks and troughs of personal performance, plus the tendency of some coaches to second guess themselves when the pressure arrives, that invariably subvert or redirect the discourse when the World Cup year arrives.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • Arch Rautenbach

    While I do agree with you that it won’t define the Boks’ chances of winning the world cup next year, a win will go a long way tomorrow. Yes, a lot still has to happen. But the core group will most probably stay the same. And the confidence that the core group will have if they win tomorrow, will go a long way. People haven’t been this excited to see a Bok vs All Black game in a very long time. Why are you trying to take it away from them Gavin? Why?

    • nezo

      well said sir. Mr Gavin is missing the point.

  • Barry Smith

    It is a fair question Arch, why the attempts to tone down the hype.
    I think the simple answer is that if you look at the bookie predictions and also consider the selections made, which have a distinct “building depth” feel to it, then you can appreciate the scribes intentions!
    Some may argue that it is primarily the same team that beat the AB’s in Wellington, but on this occasion there will not be the same element of surprise. The continued inclussion of experimental players such as Kolbe, who recorded poor defensive stats against Auss miss tackle ratio 55%,
    (One that cost 7 points) suggests the coach is looking beyond merely a win! Considering the opposition: Ioane 6’2″” 102 kgs, Naholo 6’1″ 105 kgs and Kolbe 5’7″” 74 kgs!!
    The folks in KZN are smarting at the exclusion of Nkosi (6′ 97kgs) who has a far better defensive record and size wise is better suited whilst offering nothing less on attack. They have a point. But perhaps it’s about depth not wining!
    I will be holding thumbs, but in reality it’s a very tough ask!

    • Arch Rautenbach

      I understand your point, and even agree with you. The All Blacks are still the favorites to win it. But why try to play down the hype? That’s my question? As a person who earns his living writing about rugby, Gavin holds some power in what people think and how they react. And trying to play down the hype of a historically massive Springbok vs All Black game (which failed to live up to the expectation the past couple of years) is in my opinion irresponsible from a rugby writer. Especially in a week where the Springboks tried there very best to build the hype and unite the country behind them. Hope you saw the video form them. It brought a tear to my eye.

      • nezo

        perfectly said sir. there is a time for everything. now is the time to back the boks as the whole country. Not what he is doing

    • Jan

      Hiding some players has a purpose

      • Barry Smith

        OK, what purpose is that?

  • John Comyn

    Gavin I think it’s more about how many games the Boks have left to play than the time (11 months) before the WC. I think it is only 5 games. But I do get your point. Anything can happen between now and then. Let’s hope our players are carefully managed. Like meaningless local derbies where players go out there to inflict serious damage to each other..

  • Herman Schroder?

    I do agree with Gavin that pinning hopes on certain individuals as being crucial to the WC cause is an exercise in futility and that injuries and poor form can scupper the best laid plans of mice and men.

    Before the Wellington aberration Vermeulen was considered the be all and end all of our chances going forward to the WC. We beat the AB’s without him after all.He excused himself for greener pastures and the man who took his place the much maligned WW ( by some ) was incredible on the day and will be sorely missed today. Compare his tackle and covering count with his replacement this afternoon the largely anonymous Flo Louw. It’s a no contest and we may still pay the price later on today.

    When HM and AC took over they stated time and time again that they are building for the WC. When we lost, which was frequently, the WC was the deflection option. HM in particular went into meltdown mode from 2014 and started raising his ‘golden oldies’ like zombies from the graveyard to call back the past. It dismally failed at Brighton in the most spectacular way and the rest is history. Now they are even making a movie about it, lol.

    To be fair to Rassie he is not as fixated on the WC as his predecessors and is trying to resurrect old Bokkie from the dead by spreading the net far and wide. He may however be overdoing it as well. I believe in some ways he has cheapened the Bok jersey by handing out caps left right and centre.

    So yes Gavin even one year out from the WC anything can still happen to anybody and it’s a pointless argument to say that so and so is a must have. I believe the gains will be on the mental side more than anything else assuming we keep on winning of course. The downside is that skills and vision are still in very short supply.

    On the bright side I don’t believe it’s possible to hand out any new caps before then because just about every Franchise has already got a dozen or more ‘Springboks’ in their squads for next years SR. Four ‘Springbok’ teams going head to head, so every derby game will in effect be a ‘mini test match’, lol. So who will be the last 23 standing a year from now ? Anybody’s guess, so play every game to win and the WC will look after itself. Cheers.

  • Dean

    Jake said in an interview that it didn’t matter who played, it didn’t disrupt the continuity in the team. That is a mark of a great coach. The same can be said of Mallett and now Rassie. It’s about having a system in place that works. The AB’s have it down to a T. Look at the England series, Nz game in Wellington and now in Pretoria. 3 different loose trio’s played. The center combination changed and the locks. The bench was also vastly different. The spine of the team is still there though. 2,9,10 and 15 are crucial to the success of this team. There’s no doubt though that there is still opportunitites for players who haven’t featured yet. I’m pretty sure that Rassie might still want to see Lood, Nyakane, Qcoboka, Reinach, Serfontein, Marcell Coetzee, Steyn and Jaco Kriel play and see how they go.

Comments are closed.