Monday, 26 September 2011

The voice of rugby backs Springboks to win the World Cup: They'll do it by stealth says Eddie Butler

Eddie Butler does not suffer fools, gladly or gwladly, to use the Welsh phrase meaning “righteous nation”.

That’s why, when the former Welsh captain starts talking about South Africa winning this World Cup in New Zealand, people tend to listen. The fact that he’s well over six foot, has fathered six children and is still intimidating at 54 helps too.

Yesterday in the British Observer newspaper – not one of those trashy tabloid phone-hacking scandal sheets – the world’s finest rugby commentator was quite emphatic about how the Springboks are doing in the land of the long white cloud.

Though the Springboks left South Africa under a cloud of their own, Butler reckons the reigning champions are quietly on course to become the first nation to win the Webb Ellis Cup three times.

Despite a highly-fortunate 17-16 victory over Butler’s Wales in their opening Pool D encounter, the most respected voice of rugby in Britain insists: “South Africa seem in an ominously understated mood. Even in “Little Jo'burg” last Thursday night, in front of a massed throng of expats in North Shore, their 87-0 victory against Namibia was registered as routine. The defending champions seem to be doing this World Cup by stealth.

“Perhaps it was that game against Wales that has knocked them off the radar. There is a theory that they spent so much time with all their sponsors at swanky farewell parties back home that they arrived a little overfed and watered in New Zealand. We know how dangerous it can be to party hard.

“There is another theory: that Wales simply played very well and provided the kick in the rear that the defending champions needed.”

I’ve been saying that all along and taking flak from the not-so-sheepish Wales fans on, but such theories carry weight when Butler insists: “South Africa are not light on confidence on any road, even if for the moment it is hushed. As is their coach, Peter de Villiers, normally a car crash of quotes waiting to happen. Many South Africans are embarrassed by his gaffes. On Schalk Burger's eye-gouging incident in 2009, he said: "Rugby is a contact sport. Shall we all go out and buy tutus?"

“But there seems to be a growing body of support for De Villiers, especially among Afrikaans speakers who recognise that what comes out of his mouth in English may have started off as a slightly less outlandish thought in his first language.

“Besides, it may serve the Springboks well to have a coach who pulls all the attention towards himself.”

South Africans – especially those who love to watch the Afrikaans-only braai-barbeque World Cup match-day magazine programme “Toks and Tjops” (which is unlikely to attract Julius Malema as a guest anytime soon) – will be particularly intrigued to hear Butler insist: “It is said that De Villiers’ internal man-management skills are excellent, and that his players adore him.”

Butler points out: “When it came to the last rounds of the Tri-Nations, at home, the Springboks lost to Australia, but beat New Zealand – or New Zealand B – in their last game. Then they ate, said goodbye, travelled here, were scared by Wales and started to put themselves back into shape against Fiji (49-3) and Namibia (87-0). They are cranking it up.”

With Bismarck du Plessis –arguably the world’s best hooker despite the presence of World Cup winning captain John Smit starting ahead of him in New Zealand - ready to be launched in the Springboks’ final pool match on Friday, Butler believes De Villiers has been spot on with tricky selection problems.

As I said on eTV’s Sunrise on Monday morning, Bismarck will emerge against Samoa with steam coming out of his ears and Butler says: “The Springboks still beat themselves up a bit as to whether Smit should be keeping Bismarck out of the starting line-up. But the captaincy of South Africa comes with baggage that no other country can imagine, and Smit has done wonders as an ambassador facing the outside world and as a glue keeping his team together. He should be allowed to choose the moment of his departure.”

With his usual sharp eye for form, Butler also points out the value of Danie Russouw, the 33-year-old who has shone at lock while the iconic Blue Bull Victor Matfield and his “not so batterproof” partner Bakkies Botha struggle with injury.

He argues: “It’s typical of the rising determination of the Springboks that Rossouw, even at the ripe old age of 33, has seized his chance and has been outstanding.

“Schalk Burger is back to his rampaging best. He insisted on returning to the field against Namibia, with stitches in his head, when he could have chosen to have the rest of the evening off. There seems to be an infectious enthusiasm among even the old guard.”

Butler also highlights the form of Frans Steyn and Jaque Fourie and argues Bryan Habana, who scored a record-breaking 39th Bok try against Namibia – should make way for Francois Hougaard on the wing.

He says: “Hougaard looks a bundle of cranky energy, aggressive, darting and speedy. He is almost the team's talisman, the player who prefers to play at scrum-half but who has come on as a wing and made a real impact. He is the sign that the Springboks are stirring.”

And as for all that guff about South Africa throwing Friday’s clash with Samoa in an attempt to meet Ireland rather than Australia in the quarter-finals, Butler blusters: “There's no chance of that. Route one, please, that goes through the brick wall, all the way to the title.”

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