It was all a bit like déjà vu wasn’t it? A new coach, a new beginning and a good bunch of optimistic sentiment has been flowing around the country for a while now. Rassie is the new Messiah and everyone has been talking him up. A giant squad is selected after the “alignment camps” and, not one, but two captains are named. It all seems so fresh and modern that we must be on track.
Of course, England is the big challenge but a game against a Wales B side in Washington represents a great warm-up. It is surely a gentle start to the new order. Transformation issues are being dealt with, we are told, and it all looks rosy. Then the whistle blows and, sadly, it all looks too familiar. It looks like very little has changed. Mark me down as disappointed.
We did fight back after a bad start and it was a horrendous error that led to the winning, or losing, try but despite lots of energy and commitment, you have to say that Wales were the better side on the day. Wales B! Aimless kicking, high and long, one off runners and mauling for penalties seemed to be it for us. Whenever we tried to create or up the tempo our handling was shocking. Some individual magic gave us tries and moments of enjoyment but overall it was pretty poor and because of the pre-game optimism, very disappointing. Maybe it was the weather. Take two on Saturday. We need to see a big improvement.
It sounds churlish to have a go at youngsters after a second straight win but, even more than the Welsh result, the Junior Springboks performance is worrying. We have a young squad that has size, speed, skill and conditioning. We also have been talking about a new style of play at youth level for ages. Skill will trump grunt we have been told for some time. They have had plenty of preparation and a good tour before the World Championship so there are no excuses. Georgia were big and physical but we should have put them away with ease. We squeaked it. It was the first game so let’s be charitable. A win is a win.
Ireland in game two would be tough but after the run up to it, a fair test of where our youth rugby is and this is the point. I was excited to see the South African selection and it looked a good mix of size and speed. We also had the much praised Damian Willemse at ten to orchestrate it all. We started with a gift try in the first minute and were 12-0 up after 19 minutes. Surely we would run Ireland ragged and smash them? Instead, the Irish worked their way back into the game intelligently and, using clever lines of running with their impressive number eight Caelan Doris, looked at one stage the likely winners. In fairness, thanks mainly to centre Wandisile Simelane who got a hat-trick, we did win 30-17 in the end but much of it was due to our superior scrummaging and forward power. A bit like the Boks against Wales, when it came to creating at intense speed or off-loading in tight situations, we were second best. Once again, mark me down as disappointed.
In every way we have massive advantages in rugby. We have always enjoyed the biggest and hardest human specimens in the world and now, thanks to the new South Africa, we have finally accessed a huge pool of running and skills talent that was excluded in the past. Young Simelane is a classic example. Tyrone Green is another talent but he hardly got a pass all day.
Hopefully both the Boks and Baby Boks will demonstrate that they are better than they have looked thus far. I am not writing them off. However, they have still looked way deficient in attacking skills compared to their opponents and as we all know, we are miles behind almost every New Zealand side we see on a regular basis.
Our Sevens side has shown that skill under intense pressure can be developed over time. We see a conveyor belt of players stepping up. The problem is that in fifteens, time passing doesn’t seem to show significant improvement. By now our youngsters should be evidence that plans laid years ago are coming to fruition to provide the next generation of Boks with the necessary raw materials in terms of skill and philosophy. I haven’t seen it yet and hence the concern.