For many of us die-hard rugby fans the countdown to the World Cup began a long time ago. I may or may not be part of a Whatsapp group that was originally titled ‘100 days to the World Cup’, whittled away day by day, but I’m not willing to divulge such details.
Anyway it is now just the 30 days left and, after what can best be described as a horrid Rugby Championship (wooden spoon guys, we finished below the Argies), it is time to look at some of the more pressing questions South African fans will want answered.
The folks at the Telegraph have put together a great piece that covers 30 questions about the tournament, although for the sake of brevity I’ve hand-picked those that should interest us Saffas the most. It’s always nice to get an international perspective so let’s get the ball rolling then…
Will Heyneke Meyer be able to turn around South Africa’s fortunes?
A 26-12 victory against Argentina in Buenos Aires barely papered over cracks that have been spreading across the edifice of South African rugby. The Springboks lost all their matches in the Rugby Championship as well as suffering defeats to Ireland and Wales last autumn. That is hardly the form of the supposed second-best team on the planet. Injuries have played a large part in their demise. The first choice back row of Willem Alberts, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen have not played together for over a year. Captain Jean De Villiers has only just returned from a dislocated knee cap only to suffer a broken jaw against the Pumas. Bad luck, however, will not wash as an excuse with an expectant South African rugby public still smarting from a quarter-final exit in 2011.
Pat Lambie or Handre Pollard at No 10?
Fly-half has been a problem position for South Africa for a number of years. Even when they won the 2007 World Cup, it was with the solid rather than inspired Butch James at the helm. Then on October 4 last year, South Africa thought they had found their saviour when Handre Pollard scored two tries and created another in their 25-24 victory against New Zealand that halted the champions’ 22-match winning streak. Pollard, though, failed to meet the sky-high levels of expectation that performance had engendered and it was Pat Lambie – who coincidentally kicked the winning penalty in that All Blacks game – who started the Springboks’ last match against Argentina. He was impressive too and now Pollard, the chosen one of South African rugby, may have to settle for a place on the bench for the opener against Japan.
Are New Zealand peaking too soon?
In 2003 England were derided in the southern hemisphere as a “Dad’s Army” given their ageing profile and Sir Clive Woodward’s side only got over the line against Australia after failing to replicate the stunning form earlier in the year. Twelve years on and it is New Zealand who are stacked with players taking part in their last World Cup, with four players with over 100 caps each, including captain Richie McCaw. On the evidence of their imperious victory over Australia last Saturday, they remain the best side in the world, but Steve Hansen’s challenge is to manage his resources to ensure, like Woodward, his veterans maintain their momentum to the end of October.
Will Steve Hansen keep faith with the old guard?
The resounding 41-13 victory over Australia not only secured the Bledisloe Cup but silenced a chorus of critics demanding an injection of fresh blood. Dan Carter and Conrad Smith in particular should feel secure in their positions after their outstanding individual performances despite the superior form of Beauden Barrett and Malakai Fekitoa in Super Rugby. Other Hansen favourites remain under scrutiny. Israel Dagg, despite his fine hip-hop skills, looks particularly vulnerable given the emergence of Nehe Milner-Skudder, the next potential superstar of the game. Tony Woodcock, meanwhile, suffered a torrid time at the scrum in the Rugby Championship and only the lack of an in-form alternative may save him. Many of these debates are liable to be reopened at the slightest sign of a slip during the World Cup.
Will the world ever grow to love England?
England are the team that all others love to hate, in a knockabout tribal sense. England would probably not want it any other way themselves for they too can draw on that sense of grievance that they are so routinely and so wrongly maligned. Stuart Lancaster has made great and genuine strides in fostering a squad that is humble and respectful. Others will not see it that way, and there is no doubt that many will want to see them fail. On the flip side, Lancaster has also encouraged pride in being English, and the level of home support for his team will be a significant factor.
That last one – keep dreaming Pommies, unless you’re doing us a favour by knocking out a big gun I think most South Africans are happy to see you get steam-rolled a la Mike Catt in 1995.
Many Bok fans are rapidly growing disillusioned with Meyer, his constant selection of Pollard ahead of Lambie just one of the issues at hand. As for the All Blacks, it really is tough to see how anyone will better them on the biggest stage of all; perhaps we can take Suzie along for the ride and offer her culinary skills to the All Blacks before our possible semi-final showdown?
If you aren’t part of a Whatsapp World Cup countdown group I suggest you start now, 30 days seems like as good a time as any.
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