JOHANNESBURG, September 7 – Defending champions South Africa are in disarray a year before launching a Rugby World Cup defence against Wales with uncertainty over who will be the coach and captain in New Zealand.
A first loss to Australia on the high-altitude Highveld since 1963 completed a disastrous Tri-Nations campaign last weekend in which the Springboks suffered five defeats and conceded 22 tries in six Tests.
Controversial coach Peter de Villiers — the first black to guide the green and gold — has borne the brunt of the blame with senior players like skipper John Smit, lock Victor Matfield and wing Bryan Habana also heavily criticised.
Habana was humiliated during the Australia Test with his every mistake booed and when the 2007 Rugby Player of the Year did do something right sarcastic cheers followed until an early second-half substitution.
De Villiers and assistants Dick Muir and Gary Gold were the subject of bitter verbal abuse after the 41-39 loss as a public passionate about the national team vents its anger.
Heyneke Meyer, Allister Coetzee and Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus are names being touted as a possible successor to De Villiers and 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White says he is ready to perform a salvage operation.
South African Rugby Union (SARU) president Oregan Hoskins said in a weekend statement that the performance of the coaches and the team will be reviewed later this month without hinting at the purge many consider essential.
Fit-again Bismarck du Plessis is rated a superior hooker to Smit by a lot of critics while Coastal Sharks utility back Patrick Lambie and Golden Lions fly-half Elton Jantjies are emerging stars a new coach might consider.
Woeful defending has been a key factor in the demise of South Africa with an average of four tries conceded in the home Tri-Nations Tests and one Wallaby try in Bloemfontein coming after Habana and centre Jean de Villiers collided.
"They had the intensity of ballerinas at the tackle point and the accuracy of men handcuffed and blindfolded. On more than one occasion a flapping arm took the place of a conventional tackle," bemoaned one blogger.
South Africa have won the World Cup twice and the 1995 and 2007 successes were built around a watertignt defence with low, clinical, bone-rattling tackles repeatedly repulsing opponents like All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu.
Smit, who some critics claim is the real coach, and De Villiers believe the defensive structures are good when properly applied and the skipper has told his team to "stare in the mirror and be honest with yourselves".
The breakdown has been another problem area with De Villiers refusing to replace long-term injury casualty Heinrich Brussouw with a specialist openside "scavenger" to counter All Black Richie McCaw and Wallaby David Pocock.
Fourie du Preez, widely rated the best scrum-half in the world, has been sorely missed through injury and his return next year will be a massive boost to the world champions.
Giant lock Bakkies Botha missed virtually all the Tri-Nations campaign due to a nine-week ban and when he decides to concentrate solely on the ball rather than taking his ‘enforcer’ role too far, South Africa will benefit greatly.
Weariness is also an element in the Springbok slump with a leading sport scientist claiming thirtysomethings like Smit and vice-captain Matfield have already exceeded their desirable game time for this year.
De Villiers has said publicly the duo plus Habana and some other senior stars will be rested for the November ‘Grand Slam’ tour to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.
As if the perceived coaching limitations of De Villiers was not enough, he has a controversial streak with a comment last week that the Boks backed murder accused Northern Bulls prop ‘Bees’ Roux "100 percent" triggering an outcry.
Hoskins had to douse the flames of fury, expressing support and condolences to the family of a municipal policeman allegedly beaten to death by Roux in a Pretoria street.
After Wales on September 11, the Springboks face Fiji (Sept 17), Namibia (Sept 22) and Samoa (Sept 30) in Group D, Ireland are possible quarter-final rivals and if the Boks survive, it should be New Zealand for a final place.