There was reason for hope in the Bok camp yesterday.
Gavin Rich and Alison de Villiers writes for the Cape Argus that the chances of the Springboks winning all three matches on their tour of the United Kingdom seemed to brighten considerably yesterday as the two players who hold the key to success north of the equator, John Smit and Bakkies Botha, reminded us why there is reason for optimism.
The skipper and the enforcer are both fit again, and when they attended yesterday’s press conference they appeared enthusiastic, motivated and ready to make the impact that was missed by the Boks in the Tri-Nations season.
That Botha might have made a difference had he been present during the home leg of the Tri-Nations is beyond dispute.
The Boks had massive problems at the breakdowns, but only the very brave or the extremely stupid would contemplate putting their heads or hands into a ruck when the aggressive Botha is around.
The big man appears to be itching to take out the frustrations of sitting on the sidelines for the past few months on his opponents, and his driving presence will be just what the Boks need against northern hemisphere teams that tend to adopt a different approach to forward play.
Much as Botha’s return will boost the confidence of his team, however, his importance does not come near to that of Smit. The captain was the first to admit it is a massive ask to expect him to play tighthead after just three games there for his French club Clermont.
But it is in his leadership role that Smit is so important, and why the selectors took the step that has confounded several scrummaging experts, including Sharks scrum coach Balie Swart and former Springbok strongman Cobus Visagie.
Smit was sorely missed during the Tri-Nations, not least for the influence he was expected to exert in the behind-the-scenes struggle between the coach, assistant coaches and senior players over strategy.
The captain has had a remarkable recovery from a groin injury that even stunned his own doctor, who performed the operation.
“My recovery was faster than expected and when given the chance to play in the Currie Cup, my passion and hunger increased.” said Smit.
On his move to tighthead, Smit said: “I enjoy what I do whether it’s playing or training. And I’m extremely happy for Bismarck (du Plessis), who has come a long way and is earmarked to be a great hooker for the country.
“I will play wherever the coach feels I have to play to make the team better, and I’m only 30 so I’m not retiring anytime soon,” Smit added.
In many ways, the clock has been rewound ahead of this tour, back to June, when Smit played a key on and off-field role in ensuring that not all of the structures put in place by former coach Jake White were thrown out.
The good news for Bok fans is that it appears the senior players have won their battle to play the way they are more comfortable with, and word from the camp is that the Boks are set to continue what they started against Australia in Johannesburg by being strict about where on the field the ball should be run from, and by emphasising structure ahead of heads-up rugby.
When asked if the Boks would switch from a conservative style of play after their adventurous style from the Tri-Nations, coach Peter de Villiers offered: “We will never become conservative and just try different roads to get the best results.”
De Villiers admitted the recent controversies from the alleged sex tape, as well as the sagas around controversial flanker Luke Watson and the Springbok emblem had affected the side mentally.
“Looking back, there are some games we should have won,” he said.
“We need to put the past, whether good or bad, behind us, learn from it and take it into the future.”
Ultimately though Smit, who has toured the UK with the Boks more than any other player in the squad, will probably be the most important figure on this tour as he is the nearest thing you can get to a guarantee that the Boks will continue what they started in the last Tri-Nations match.
In other words, go back to the basics of what they know best and which won them a World Cup in the northern hemisphere just 12 months ago.
If the Boks play the right way then the only thing that could possibly prevent them from completing a clean sweep in Cardiff, Edinburgh and London is if the two disputed selections at flyhalf and the switch of Smit to tighthead, are shown up.
We will only know that next month.