Baby Boks' poor showing sets off the alarm bells
THIS week, just a few steps away from the statue commemorating one of the greatest figures and creative thinkers in rugby, South Africa's under-20s took on their Irish counterparts in their opening match in the Junior World Championship in Stellenbosch.
The juxtapositioning of Dr Danie Craven's memorial and the next generation of Springbok rugby seemed apt, for the venerated scholar of the game derived his greatest pleasure from discovering and nurturing talent.
Sadly, as it turned out, it was an occasion that would have caused Craven to purse his lips, thrust out his jaw and utter a scathing judgment.
Without wishing to heap condemnation on youngsters sharing such big dreams in the first bloom of their careers, it was an occasion that put the great traditions of the setting to shame.
It was not so much that the "Baby Boks" suffered a shock 23-19 defeat to a spirited Irish side, but the manner of the loss that should have set off klaxons in the corridors of Saru.
South Africa's finest were made to look incompetent and unimaginative - they set out to bully the Irish lads and when their aggression was met with an equally ferocious response, they had no answer.
To me, it was symptomatic of a creeping damp in South African rugby that is more serious than administrators are willing to concede or even see.
Watching the cream of our post-school crop running up blind alleys, crashing into opponents, taking poor options, losing touch with teammates, trying to do too much on their own and being devoid of ideas to outmanoeuvre opponents who refused to be physically intimidated was reminiscent of other miserable occasions.
Was this not why the Springboks were unable to beat the Wallabies in last year's Rugby World Cup quarterfinal? Why the Bulls could dominate against the Stormers last weekend and still not win?
I sincerely hope the "Bokkies" right the ship and come out with their heads held high. I apologise for hanging this on them but the fact is that most South African teams play by rote; it's all mindless repetition and very little imagination.
There are many reasons for this - a fit with our national characteristics, a win-at-all-costs attitude, the template of two World Cup victories, the success of the Bulls - but like it or not, the South African game is facing a crisis.
Since the event that is under way in the Cape, the IRB Junior World Championship, replaced under-19 and under-21 international tournaments in 2008, SA have not won it.
In fact the last time South Africa emerged victorious in an age-group tournament was in 2005 when the under-21s and under-19s took their respective cups. By contrast, New Zealand won the first four Junior World Cups.
It is also significant that in Sevens, the condensed form of the game given entry into the Olympics (in 2016) and which is all about speed and skill, the Springboks have won the IRB World Series just once - in 2008/9. The All Blacks claimed the title 10 times.
Surely that is an indication that all is not well in the nursery. Some top players - Pierre Spies, Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Hougaard, Patrick Lambie, Keegan Daniel, Chilliboy Ralepelle, Adriaan Strauss and Brad Barritt among others - have come through, but far too few; and not nearly enough players of colour.
We glory in the quality of our schoolboys but is it not a factor that many schools have turned their first teams into precocious professionals who can't cope with tough post-school realities?
Not only is it time to bury the myth that South African players are bigger than the rest but time to admit something is wrong and fix it. Perhaps a good start could be for all teams, from the Springboks down, to add a creativity coach to their line-up.