In some ways, the Springboks are like a super-charged version of England. Both boast a dogged, hard-driving forward pack with plenty of tough-nuts committed to the cause. And both brains trusts, despite patchy lead-in form, will back those who have been there before to deliver when it counts. Both sides will be short on surprises but if England may be hamstrung by a lack of creativity, South Africa have a few bigger guns in their arsenal. If they fire, the Boks will be hard to beat.
There are few mysteries about the reigning champions, whose hard core of senior players remain world-beaters. John Smit and Victor Matfield are inspirational leaders, with Pierre Spies (main image) adding further muscle and Morne Steyn’s boot a match-winning weapon in its own right.
Throw in Bryan Habana burning up one wing and Heinrich Brussow locking up every loose ball and you have a side with every chance of chance of going back-to-back. The cherry on top will come if scrumhalf Fourie du Preez can recover his best form – he was, after all, South Africa’s most important player a couple of years ago before injury intervened.
Boks coach Peter de Villiers, such a loose cannon off the field, seems satisfied with his team’s steadiness on it – even if a slow start to the Tri-Nations included some alarming results. Some have criticised De Villiers for playing dull rugby but, on the eve of the World Cup, the coach defended his style, suggesting neither Australia nor New Zealand were markedly more adventurous.
“There was not really anything new in the way the Wallabies or the All Blacks have played over the last four years,” De Villiers told the Beeld newspaper.
“The Wallabies brought in two new moves from the scrums, with one of the moves from a middle-scrum [position].
“The All Blacks have brought in one new move, also from a scrum. Therefore, I am not worried. In fact, I believe we have exactly the right pattern for the tournament.”
The other similarity between South Africa and England is that De Villiers, like Martin Johnson, will be judged by his side’s performance. De Villiers, after all, inherited a side that was already world champions. If they are shown to have gone backwards in the past four years, those who were critical of the sacking of Jake White, De Villiers’s predecessor, will claim vindication.
White, though, for his part, believes the Boks are well-placed to defend their title but that De Villiers’s management of his roster may prove crucial.
“If certain players get injured, who comes in and where they fill in is where you can judge the squad,” White said.
And the rest?
What would a Rugby World Cup be without the French, their flamboyance mixed generously with a dose of Gallic insouciance?
Could cause England some problems in the quarter-finals.
Looked like the pick of the northern hemisphere side 12 months ago but the wheels have fallen off this year, to the point where Italy have some chance of knocking them over in the pool matches.
Will be butting heads with Argentina to see who qualifies behind England. Will rely heavily on Dan Parks, their journeyman Sydney-born flyhalf, to run up a winning score.
Have been hit hard by injury in the lead-up to the tournament and could be tested by Fiji and Samoa but should have enough experience and quality to get through to the last eight.