How does a team that came of such a high in 2009 hit such a low in 2010, more importantly, can it be fixed?
To answer the second question, yes it can be, the problem is when we look to answer the first question, have we correctly identified the problems?
Parallels and comparisons have been drawn in just about every conceivable form to find answers for where Springbok rugby finds itself. Individual analysis of games and players can also highlight what is perceivably, or possibly the source of the problems the Springbok team currently experience.
I have myself ventured into the statistics arena of debates in recent weeks, discussed player selections and game plans and tactics and various other elements which all possibly contributes to the current state of affairs.
But just this weekend following the last test between the Springboks and Wallabies and specifically studying the defensive structures of the Springboks I was reminded of what Peter de Villiers said on the overseas leg of the Tri-Nations where after he studied one of the losses to the All Blacks on video, he could not pin-point where it all went wrong or identify the problem…
Of course that statement has given the media enough ammunition to crucify the Springbok coach but on Sunday, when I watched the game again I realised this is probably the most honest assessment Peter de Villiers gave of the Springboks in his three years in charge and his most accurate.
What occurred to me is Peter, and his management are not so much wrong with their statements like there is little wrong with the defensive structures, because the problem is not the structures.
A couple of months ago I challenged Dr. Ross Tucker to provide us with some insights into the psyche of the Springbok team and management and two things he mentioned, or warned us against, has become evident in the last part of this year and the Tri-Nations and to my mind, the biggest contributor to the fall from grace the Springboks have experienced.
The first issue he touched on was sport cycles, or cycles in sport, and the difficulty for any team or individual to achieve sustained success in professional sports.
Much has been said in recent years on the point and purpose of players like John, Victor, Schalk, Juan and the likes on the reasons they still stick it out, where most believe they have achieved all they needed to and possible needed to step down after the British and Irish Lions series in 2009. The players told you they had one more goal to achieve, and that was to avenge the defeat at the hands of the Lions 10 years ago and for the opportunity to play in such a series, an honour not afforded to every rugby player.
They were motivated, focussed and hungry for success, and they achieved it. Because they are that damn good.
Following that series talk shifted from the Lions series, to be the first team to successfully defend the Rugby World Cup for the first time in history in New Zealand in 2011. And they have the ability to do this, because again, they are that damn good.
But then of course there is the small matter of 2010, the year in-between these two goals which is honestly more of a hindrance than a blessing…
Remember we are talking of players here that has won every single medal that can be won in professional rugby, that has beaten every team in every country they played in, hanging on for that one last opportunity to go down in history as legends of the game of union, the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
How do you manage these guys through a period like 2010, where they will sub-consciously enter into preservation mode rather than defend a title they have won twice already against teams they play 6 times every year?
It is easy to say rest them but you simply cannot send them on a 4 month holiday as tests are there to be won regardless and game time management is also important for players even during times of conditioning or mental rehabilitation. It is a very fine balance.
But it should have been done, and it was not.
The second problem we have comes down to exactly what happens within this team. Mentally teams learn very little from success, and it is quite easy to fall behind the guys chasing you and you are easily caught up in the mentality that you simply have to do what worked for you before.
The reality in rugby union however dictates that you have to continually evolve and adapt, the Springboks did not.
Well Peter de Villiers’ management style has been discussed many times. Empowering the players or elements within the team is one thing, doing it at the expense of losing all your own power however is quite another, and this is a trap De Villiers has fallen into.
Rugby success or failure is made up of the sum of parts, each part playing a vital role in the sustainability of a team’s success, but having parts of this system (players) drive this system is not a very bright idea.
It seems that Peter de Villiers biggest strength when he started off as a coach of the Springboks, has become his biggest enemy because it was not managed properly.
Jake White realised this just in time to fix his failings in 2006, not the way he managed his players or coached them, but that the system needed forces from outside, sometimes not even directly related to rugby and tactics and game plans, to drive the system to ensure honest, critical and constructive analysis is done on the team and its individuals, including management to ensure you sustain good performances and success.
For parts in just about all the tests in this year’s Tri-Nations apart from the opening test in Auckland, the Springboks played some inspired rugby, only for it all to fall apart or for them to conspire against themselves.
The question is not therefore whether we can play the type of rugby to beat the best in the world, the question is why this cannot be done more often and for longer periods.
Peter de Villiers does not have very far to look to find the problem with his team, but I doubt whether he is looking in the right place. There are individuals out there that will compliment the Springbok setup, one of which is the likes of a guy that predicted all this months ago already…