Cape Town – So dinosaurs can dance!
The Springboks have suddenly bared their teeth at the World Cup, the defending champions reminding the planet that even some of their older pairs of legs still have plenty of gusto left in them.
South Africa served up a feast in Wellington on Saturday, overcoming Fiji by six tries to nil for an emphatic outcome many of us, let’s face it, had considered fairly unlikely after the tepid disposal of Wales and an unfortunate lead-up winter to RWC 2011 as well.
Perhaps we should get the tempering stuff out of the way first, and quickly: the Boks were playing a side ranked 12 places below them on the IRB ladder so maybe 49-3 was what they should have been looking for anyway.
But the international rugby arena seems to be getting more broadly competitive, especially judging by some early results at this tournament, and the truth is that no side could have seriously eclipsed the Springbok performance against foes who never ran up a white flag – the Fijians were certainly going toe to toe with John Smit’s troops in the first quarter of an enthralling game which was deadlocked 3-3 right on the 20-minute mark.
I mention the name of Smit because it is fitting to do so: I remain among those who believe Bismarck du Plessis should start the bigger World Cup games at hooker, but credit must also go where it is due; the big old bulldozer played his part as much as anyone in this encouragingly expressive – an overdue phenomenon -- Bok display.
Smit had probably as good a 54 minutes at No 2 as he has had for a while, and his presence in a brawny, even more heavyweight than usual Bok tight five helped lay some awesome foundations for this increasingly fleet-footed triumph.
The enforced absence of second row athlete Victor Matfield meant Bakkies Botha was paired with Danie Rossouw and this only added prime beef to the boiler room at scrum-time, which was as key a springboard to the Bok win as any other.
Now here’s a tricky little question: should lineout master Matfield’s return to the starting fray when ready to do so really be considered a fait accompli?
Rossouw, after all, had arguably the best game of his long Test life in all respects in Matfield’s No 5 shirt, and I felt he was an eminently sensible choice as man of the match, not just for doing his donkeywork with customary willingness but being an absolute demon as a ball-carrier throughout.
And speaking of seasoned Springbok warriors trying to snatch their places back, how is Jean de Villiers, that poor fellow with a World Cup hoodoo, going to displace Frans Steyn at inside centre now?
Steyn gave the Bok backline as a whole a notable rebirth in thrust and purpose with his decision-making, personal determination to make yardage and use of his great physical attributes in both a defensive and offensive capacity.
Indeed, you have to credit the Bok brains trust for bringing Steyn much closer to the action for the Fiji fixture; I had felt that his solidity at fullback against Wales was reasonable grounds to keep him there for the second RWC assignment.
But commentator Matthew Pearce so rightly observed the “relish” with which the Racing Metro player took to his string-pulling role, whilst Patrick Lambie was just another element of the tactical reshuffle to look extremely convincing, filling his shoes in the last line of defence.
Hello, and was that Morne Steyn, the perceived place-kicking dullard, popping refreshingly out of the proverbial pocket, taking gaps, varying his approach with some deft little touches and even getting over the whitewash himself?
Other aspects of the Bok selection that had raised some eyebrows, like Odwa Ndungane’s installation at wing, came up trumps: the Sharks man is no out-and-out speed merchant but he was as competent as anyone in the process of South Africa first doing the essential “subduing” and sticking to basics before they added the penetration factor to their equation in a major way.
It was a good move, too, as the Fijian resolve and stamina was gradually squeezed out of them, to replace Ndungane with that versatile, electric little eel off the bench, Francois Hougaard, who asked questions and then still more questions of the underdogs’ defence.
The fluidity and vibrancy of the Bok showing was picked up on by some New Zealand pundits during the second half, with former All Blacks scrumhalf Justin Marshall encapsulating their significant admiration: “The Boks have been clinical, ruthless and accurate in everything they’ve done.”
Make no mistake, plenty of bone-jarring, sweaty commitment was still required to mastermind this fine display, and a few eternally abrasive and industrious characters like Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brussow could probably do with some “feet up” time as the less menacing hurdle, with respect, of Namibia looms next for the buoyant Boks …