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Step forward for Boks

Stuart Barnes16/9/07

Friday night was a clash of eras. Yesterday’s fading men from England, who will mercifully soon be stripped of a world champions tag they have held in nothing but name for four long years, against one of today’s leading teams and potential 2007 world champions, South Africa.

The history men were consigned to the back pages by a side that did not need to perform at its peak but displayed structure enough to threaten the coronation of the All Blacks. There is a way to travel, but with the Springboks in the other side of the draw, the likelihood of the sport’s two traditional powers coming together for a repeat of the 1995 final is gathering momentum. Like the Titanic and the iceberg, New Zealand and South Africa look destined to collide.

Whether the South Africans will sink or be sunk might depend upon the contribution of the world’s best scrum-half, Fourie du Preez. He was majestic on Friday, creating all three South African tries with a combination of leg and mind speed that humiliated the ponderous plodders of Martin Corry’s England team.

The contrast between the Springbok pivot and the bedraggled effort of Shaun Perry and Andy Gomarsall summed up the difference between today’s and yesterday’s men. Du Preez is not the servant of the Springbok pack, but its master. Yes, forwards win matches, but only when they are directed by backs. The latter is the part of the equation widely forgotten.

Du Preez commanded his pack from the first to the 61st minute, when he sauntered away from his stroll in the Stade. When Du Preez wants the ball, he gets it. Always on the front foot, he was primed to outpace Paul Sackey, outkick the entire England kicking team or flash a slick service to the quietly controlled Butch James.

John Smit is captain, but Du Preez is the side’s fulcrum. What a desperate contrast with Perry and his replacement, both of whom stuttered and stumbled through their lines. But spare a thought for the England nines. Whereas the dynamic nature of the South African game allows for quick and urgent possession, stodgy England, under their brave but stolid captain, Corry, treat their scrum-halves with disdain. The England half-back gets the ball in the forwards’ own good time and not a second before. Crash it up a metre a minute and when the move (something of a contradiction in terms) terminates, he can scramble it out with his feet as opposition defenders line up to make the tackles.

England win lots of ball, but most of it is useless ball. Defences truly do win matches when attacks accept the cramped conditions imposed by the England set-up. If they are not trundling aimlessly around, they are committing so few numbers to the breakdown that ball is inevitably slowed down.

Du Preez is the best scrum-half in the tournament, but more people might realise just how good he is if he were English. Fortunately for him, he is not and a number of his allies are of such quality that his vibrant talents have a great chance to make it all the way to the final.

The most obvious and talked about of his colleagues is, of course, Bryan Habana, but great wing that he has developed into, both in attack and defence, it is Schalk Burger who could, alongside Du Preez, hold the key to the Kiwi lock.

Jake White lost his flanker, harshly banned for two matches, one of which was Friday’s. Freshened by the enforced break, the blond bomber could eclipse the New Zealand back row with the potency of his play. You may remember Peter Winterbottom’s reservations printed on these pages only last week, but Burger’s devastating game alterations against Samoa could rip those concerns into shreds.

From nowhere he is mixing his muscle with subtle passes as defenders are forced to think twice about what he will do with the ball in hand. Eddie Jones, installed as White’s original thinker, seems to have worked the oracle and converted a mighty athlete into a potentially outstanding international.

Luck is running South Africa’s way. The ban is working well, and painful as the loss of Jean de Villiers is for the unfortunate individual, White may again be indirectly blessed. Not that the coach does not deserve some credit for selecting the 20-year-old prodigy Francois Steyn as his replacement at inside-centre. A diamond in the process of being cut, he has everything an inside-centre needs.

He may not be the organiser that the more experienced De Villiers is, but he has softer hands, equally forceful running and a monstrous kicking game. In addition, he can drop goals from outrageous distances. On Friday he looked as if he was growing into the role, while inside him at fly-half, James appears infinitely more comfortable with the booming boot and confidence of the kid next to him.

Bad luck for De Villiers could be great fortune for White, but the coach had other options. The safer one would have been to opt for South Africa’s usual cover at 12, Wynand Olivier. The Blue Bull has the considerable benefit of more experience and tends to make fewer blunders than the golden boy of Springbok rugby does.

Had this tournament been held 12 months ago, White would have taken the route more easily chosen and stuck with the steady regular, but there is a new-found confidence in his beliefs (where again the presence of Jones looms large).

While the Springboks were making their positive intentions plain for the England match with Steyn’s elevation into the XV, England were retreating further into their shell of negativity with the recall of Corry as captain. In the world of former world champions, nothing is ventured in an attempt to grind teams into the defensive dust.

But South Africa, bold and believing, have discovered faith in the powers of flair mingling among all the might of traditional hard-hitting forwards. No longer are the Springboks a one-dimensional side who can be repelled by sheer determination and tackling technique. The threats are coming from all over. The iceberg and Titanic are closing in on one another.


STUART BARNES | Times Online | Sunday, 16 September 2007 | Comment on this article

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Stuart Barnes

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Stuart Barnes' dream XV 2/9/07
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