World Cup Preview: South Africa

Group D Opposition: Wales, Samoa, Fiji, Namibia

Pedigree: Very impressive. Not invited to the first two tournaments because of the whole apartheid thing, they promptly and memorably won it all at the first attempt (with a little help from Suzie) and repeated the trick in France in 2007. Two wins from four is the best hit ratio of them all.

Players to watch: He might be behind Moondust Steyn and Spear James in the reckoning for the 10 shirt, but Patrick Lambie is the most exciting youngster in South African rugby right now, and if the Bokke look more one dimensional than usual, he could make an impact from the bench. Jean de Villiers might not have impressed Mick O’Driscoll much, but he is half of one of the best centre partnerships in the world, and will be anxious to impress after missing the 2003 edition, and most of 2007 one, through injury. In 2009, Heinrich Brussouw tortured the Lions and has been laid up since – if he hits form, he will create the breakdown mayhem Saracens South Africa will need to progress. Bismarck du Plessis is the best hooker in the world (sorry, Sean Cronin fans).

Good tournament: With their pedigree, signing off a great team by retaining the trophy would be nice.

Bad tournament: Ireland have a decent record against the Boks of late, and losing to Paddy Wallace and co. in the quarter final won’t go down well in the highveldt.

Prospects: It may seem astonishing now, but in the run up to the 2007 tournament, the general feeling was the Springboks were a bit too callow and inconsistent to take home the trophy. In the event, the side, suberbly marshalled by John Smit with a little help from Botha, Matfield and du Preez, steamed home. Only England in the final gave them a game, although the Tongans gave their reserves a few dicey moments.

That set forth a 3 year domination of world rugby, encompassing 3 Super Rugby titles (including the Bulls just before RWC07), a Tri-Nations and a Lions tour victory. 2009 was their peak, when they followed the Lions win by beating the All Blacks 3 times.

However, since then, they have gradually ran out of puff, and are facing down the barrel of a first ever Tri-Nations whitewash. Their old guard are looking less durable than ever, and the younger men aren’t demanding to step into the shirt. The team is backboned by triple Super Rugby winners the Blue Bulls, who put together a defiant run in the latter stages of this years Super Rugby, but then failed to make the play-offs with a limp loss at home to the Sharks in the last day of the regular season.

Ironically then, its a Sharks player who is the biggest problem – the captain John Smit. Due to Bismarck’s consistent excellence, Smit is being shoe-horned into the team at tight-head, but to the detriment of the scrum. As evidenced by the humiliation of being shoved around Durban by the Australian pack.

Ally this to the comically mis-named Beast, injured stalwarts like Juan Smith and Fourie du Preez, no defined 10, and a far-from-intimidating collection of outside backs, and things do not look rosey. They still hit the rucks harder than any other team and will play a tactically simple but very effective bosh and boot game, aiming to contest the breakdown agressively and grind teams down, but it’s exhausting, and you must wonder are the bodies still able.

Verdict: The pool is likely to be about as dangerous as an Ian Humphreys tackle. The talented Samoans will fancy taking one of the big guns, but muscle memory and physical power alone should get the Boks through with 4 wins. After that, it’s going to be Ireland in a quarter-final. That is going to be one of the best games of the tournament, but without pre-empting our Ireland preview, whoever wins will be swatted aside by New Zealand. One way or another, this great Springbok team is going to run out of road. We’ll always have the Second Lions Test in 2009 – the team’s zenith, and one of the best games of all time.

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Low lie the … inspirational centres

It’s odd that right throughout Munster’s period of dominance of Irish (2000-2008) and European (2006-2008) rugby, they never had a top class centre. The partnerships of Halstead-Kelly circa 2006 and Mafi-Tipoki in 2008 probably were the high water marks, but they have never had a really dynamic centre to release their outside backs. Perhaps this is a function of an historical bullock-and-boot ethos, but it remains a curiousity; and with Earls, Howlett and Jones outside, a top centre is crucial.
So for the third summer in a row, Munster are in the market for a chequebook centre. Two years ago, they signed Jean de Villiiers for what ended up to be one (unhappy) year after the Springbok world champion failed to prove himself to Mick O’Driscoll. Then last year we had the utter disaster that was Sam Tuitupoooooooooooooooohh (why oh why would Munster ever sign someone from Worcester?). This summer, again, it’s back to the drawing board.

The three names being mentioned in connection with Munster right now are Conrad Smith, Jacque Fourie and Isa Toeava. Lets look at each one, plus a few others who Ludd and Axel may wish to consider.
Three who are in the hunt:
Conrad Smith: Smith is probably the best outside centre on the planet, and is hot favourite to wear the All Black 13 shirt for the Tri-Nations and RWC. Smith is a marquee player, and if the NZRU can’t talk him into staying, there would be a queue of French teams willing to sign cheques a lot larger than Munster could afford.
Verdict: Pretty unlikely

Jacque Fourie: Jacque is fondly remembered by all biltong-chewing highveldters for the manly way he ran through a concussed Rog in the second Lions test in 2009. A man who was never unsure of his worth to the world, or of the South African man’s rugby superiority, its tough to see him having the necessary humility to fit in at Thomond.
Verdict: Another JdV in the making

Isa Toeava:

Toeava is a versatile and creative player who can play 10, 12, 13 or 15. There is a lot of traffic competing for not very many outisde back slots in NZ, and Toeava could find himself outside the 30 come RWC time without a good Tri-Nations. If that is the case, it may be a good time to head North, especially with Nonu having signed for the Blues. He is only 25 and would be perfect for Munster.

Verdict: Tony, Tony, sign him up
Three that got away:
Ma’a Nonu: was heavily discussed on Munster fan forums, but he has signed for the Blues for next year. The talk in NZ was that if he did head abroad, it would have been to join his mate Mils Muliaina in Japan.

Verdict: Probably a pipe-dream all along

James Downey: agricultural bosher who turned into Sonny Bill Williams after side-stepping Dorce in the HEC final. Unlikely to reach such heights again. Would be a good move for James Downey, Irish rugby, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht .. but not Munster.
Verdict: Ooooooooooooooooohhh

Jean de Villiers: yes, we know he never learned the words to “Stand Up and Fight” first time out. Yes, we know he didn’t impress Micko. No, he didn’t drink in Jirry’s pub. Normally, those are the top 3 criteria. But if we allow for rugby ability, JdV would have fitted the bill. But he has re-signed for the Stormers.
Verdict: Don’t look back in anger, we heard you say

Three from left field:

Paddy Wallace: Stop sniggering at the back! We have been through this before. Paddy is emphatically not an outhalf, but he is experienced and a top-notch distributing centre, which is exactly what Munster need. Granted a 10-12 axis of Rog-Paddy does look a little flimsy, but for 2/3 of Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, it worked, albeit back when O’Leary was good and Wally wasn’t 35. Plus Luke Marshall might be wearing the Ulster 12 shirt very soon.
Verdict: Not likely, but should be considered
Felipe Contepomi: How funny would this be? Who knows, Stade’s finances could collapse again, freeing Conters up for a move back to Ireland.  And Quinny has retired now. Although Rog hasn’t.
Verdict: Ligind in the making

Gavin Henson: Would blend right into the Munster shirt, thus offering invaluable cover for actual rugby players. Not sure how the waxing would go down in Moyross, but Gav will take anything going and if this drags on any longer Munster will get desperate.
Verdict: About as welcome in Limerick as the Orange Order

One thing’s for sure though: whoever arrives had better be a lover of theatre, because Axel has block booked a whole season’s worth of seats for the lucky man to see that play about 1978, so he knows Munster history.