Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Questions surrouond Springboks' decisions

AP , CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa, the 1995 world champion and third-place nation in 1999, appears to be a long way off the pace as it embarks for Perth to start its third rugby union World Cup campaign.

With a preparation riddled with injuries and controversies, as well as a series of inexplicable selection decisions by coach Rudolf Straeuli, it seems the once mighty Springboks could be easy pickings for the likes of England, New Zealand, Australia or France.

And it wouldn't surprise many, either, if the South Africans came up with a loss against the likes of Argentina, Scotland or Ireland.

But that's all on paper. The truth is the squad is confident and admirably led by Corne Krige, a flanker who revels in hard graft. He leads less by fine rhetoric than by his sheer physical presence.

That style of confrontational play, however, has been the Springboks downfall lately, with imaginative rugby being sacrificed for aggression. The result? Humiliating record defeats against England and New Zealand, as well as poor play in narrow wins over Scotland and Argentina.

Injuries have made Straeuli's selections a little difficult, but the baffling exclusion of the likes of center Robbie Fleck and utility back Brent Russell has rival defenses breathing collective sighs of relief.

In the midfield, Straeuli has opted for only one seasoned specialist center in De Wet Barry, and has chosen six fullbacks, most who're utility players in any case.

While there is no doubting the potential of many of them, just how they will stand up to the massive test posed by England in their Oct. 18 group match at Perth's Subiaco Oval is a cause for concern.

The rest of South Africa's group games -- against Uruguay, Georgia and Samoa -- should be easier, but Samoa's open style of play, as well as their hard, physical approach to the game, could unsettle the Boks.

Jaco van der Westhuyzen was a late addition when Jean de Villiers injured a shoulder in a warmup match last week. Jaco van der Westhuyzen had injured his knee in the win over Australia at Cape Town in July and was omitted from Straeuli's original 30-man roster.

"Jaco has been part of the Springbok training group throughout the season and narrowly missed inclusion in the [original] World Cup squad. He is familiar with the squad set up and should settle in quickly," said Straeuli, going into damage-control mode.

"We considered calling in a specialist center, but opted for a player that brings versatility in that he can cover fullback and flyhalf, and also offers another kicking option."

Obviously the crucial match is against England: Win that, and South Africa should progress to the semifinals. At that point, the unpredictable nature of World Cup rugby would give the Springboks an even-money chance of going all the way. Lose against England and they face a quarterfinal against the All Blacks -- arguably the best team in the world right now.

That would almost certainly mean elimination.

In the truth, they have many talented players in their ranks.

In Joe van Niekerk, one of the five IRB players of the year, they have a loose forward of the highest quality.

Lock Victor Matfield is among the classiest lineout forwards in the world.

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