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Ominous explanation for Boks captaincy riddle

Spiro Zavos17/7/07

After the New Zealand-South Africa Test in Christchurch on Sunday, I was telephoned by a knowledgeable source, who asked me: "Do you know why Wikus van Heerden didn't captain the Springboks yesterday?" I told him I had also wondered why the most experienced forward in the team hadn't taken the armband.

I thought it may have had something to do with coach Jake White grooming Johann Muller - a huge second-rower who has been impressive on and off the field - for the job,

"Van Heerden," my informant told me, "is not going to make the Springboks World Cup squad. Jake White is being forced by the ANC to take Luke Watson. So the captaincy had to be given to someone who is going to France."

The development, if it comes to pass, represents bad news for the Tri Nations and Super 14. African National Congress heavies have been pushing for the inclusion of Watson, the Western Province captain, in the World Cup squad since he was excluded from the first squad earlier in the year.

Watson is a journeyman player, but his family played an important part in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. His father, Dan "Cheeky" Watson, gave up his chances of a Springboks jersey to play his rugby in the black competitions.

For the ANC, Watson's elevation to the captaincy of the Springboks is seen as part of a necessary transformation of South African rugby in the post-apartheid era. Other changes deemed necessary are the imposition of a quota of 10 black or coloured players in the national starting XV and the renaming of the side to the Proteas.

If this policy is put into effect next year, as has been suggested, South African rugby will go into a decline from which it might not recover. The impact on the Super 14 and Tri Nations would be devastating.

Yet on recent evidence, South African rugby is - finally - coming to terms with the transformation experience: the Bulls became the first South African side to win the Super 14 this year, and the second-string Springboks side made a strong showings in the Tri Nations Tests against Australia and New Zealand in the past three weeks.

There were five black and coloured players in the 22-man squad for the All Blacks Test, and all justified their selection. In the warm-ups before the Test, the Springboks concentrated on their defensive patterns and drills. These patterns worked for 67 minutes, before the All Blacks scored three tries to establish their third-largest winning margin against the Springboks.

Steve Hansen, the embattled All Blacks forwards coach, pointed out that if the All Blacks had converted some of their 13 line breaks into tries, the score could have ballooned out to the 60s. A South African supporter said to me at half-time: "We are hanging on by our fingernails."

The Springboks were also helped by the dropped-ball syndrome that is afflicting the All Blacks. In their five Tests before last Saturday, the All Blacks dropped 75 passes. Against the Springboks, they dropped 20 more.

This has been explained as an overeagerness to exploit a break and "a lack of patience" in waiting for an opportunity to score. But there is also the fact the All Blacks haven't fielded the same back line in successive Tests for a long time.

So the stage is set for the Eden Park showdown. The Wallabies seem to have settled on a side to take them to the World Cup. The All Blacks are still searching, it seems, for their best line-up.

What happens in South Africa next year can wait. The rugby story right now is that, in a World Cup year, the Wallabies and the All Blacks, with the Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cup on the line, have a perfect dress rehearsal for the World Cup semi-final.

Steve Hansen, the embattled All Blacks forwards coach, pointed out that if the All Blacks had converted some of their 13 line breaks into tries, the score could have ballooned out to the 60s. A South African supporter said to me at half-time: "We are hanging on by our fingernails."

The Springboks were also helped by the dropped-ball syndrome that is afflicting the All Blacks. In their five Tests before last Saturday, the All Blacks dropped 75 passes. Against the Springboks, they dropped 20 more.

This has been explained as an overeagerness to exploit a break and "a lack of patience" in waiting for an opportunity to score. But there is also the fact the All Blacks haven't fielded the same back line in successive Tests for a long time.

So the stage is set for the Eden Park showdown. The Wallabies seem to have settled on a side to take them to the World Cup. The All Blacks are still searching, it seems, for their best line-up.

What happens in South Africa next year can wait. The rugby story right now is that, in a World Cup year, the Wallabies and the All Blacks, with the Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cup on the line, have a perfect dress rehearsal for the World Cup semi-final.


SPIRO ZAVOS - RugbyHeaven | Tuesday, 17 July 2007 | Comment on this article

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