Nothing captures the imagination quite like the exploration of the outer reaches of this globe: When men were men, and took expeditions for the sake of discovery and pioneering. There were no beer bellies or gym exercise. The technology that meant men could go out in temperatures far below zero and be able to keep warm was rudimentary at best.
These were the times of risk taking and the rewards were great. The zeit-geist of this era was distilled in two gentlemen involved in the race to the South Pole. After speeding to his base camp to get a head start over his British rival Captain Robert Falcon Scott; the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made a decision that defied logic and defined history. He turned around a rushed back to camp.
Four days after his premature start Amundsen assessed his party’s situation dispassionately and made the decision to “hurry back” to wait for the spring: “To risk men and animals by continuing stubbornly once we have set off is something I couldn’t consider. “If we are to win the game, the pieces must be moved properly; a false move and everything could be lost,” he wrote. The ability to regain and maintain perspective in the pursuit of something as heady as a personal dream is a rare asset. Like other great explorers, Amundsen knew when to turn back.
Today’s men are different, they are less adventurous. One of the few times they move muscle and tendon for the honour and glory of victory is on the rugby field. It is when gladiators of our time collide on the greens around the world that I feel we are closer to the men we once were.
Amundsen and Scott were leaders and pioneers of their fields, they were not conservative and neither were they one dimensional. The Springboks and their coach Heyneke Meyer are the contemporary equivalents of these Titans from the “heroic Age of Antartic Exploration”. They are men we wish we were.
It is when you look at the comparisons that you realise South Africa’s commander, pioneer explorer Meyer is a conservative man. This is a man who sticks with what he knows and seldom edges out of his comfort zone. This is the reason why the Springboks haven’t improved from the side that lost to Australia in the quarterfinal of the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
If this sounds harsh, its for the greater good. It is for the nation’s current expedition to London, culminating in 2015 when Jean De Villiers lifts the William Webb Ellis Cup. It is a race against South Africa’s true competitor from the Tasman Sea, New Zealand, who as evidenced in the last match at Ellis Park are miles ahead of the Springboks. What has set South Africa’s expedition back is our conservative leader.
The refusal to groom an understudy to Loftus Darling Morne Steyn will continue to hurt our prospects. Last year the Sharks decided to play Patrick Lambie only at flyhalf to accommodate a request by our coach to get him to perform in that position. He was inexplicably picked at fullback for last weekend’s game against Wales and now get’s a shot at flyhalf when the Springboks take on Scotland at Murrayfield, albeit because of an injury to Morne Steyn. It is vital he grabs the opportunity with the flair he exhibits whenever he has ball in hand.
Several veterans have come back into the team over the last few months. They bring comfort and security, but at a hefty price. Ruan Pienaar was the first-choice halfback until Fourie du Preez retiurned from his self-imposed exile in Japan.
There are doubts over whether the ageing Du Preez is a long term solution at halfback, while Pienaar’s credentials as an international first-choice are lacking.
We have two ageing centres in Jean De Villiers and Jaque Fourie, for all their experience and gusto they offer no long-term solution. De Villiers is in the form of his life, but Fourie looked like a geriatric, playing a young man’s game for most of the Test match against Wales. Aside from that quite brilliant flick pass to Du Preez, he had an ordinary game.
Who will South Africa’s centre pairing be for the opening game at the 2015 World Cup? Will there be enough cover if one or both of the current pairing gets injured? There are many scenarios like this where hesitation and a conservative approach have dominated the Springboks thinking and decision-making. Sprignbok Rugby needs to start developing young centres like Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht. Frans Steyn was recently awarded a long-term Springbok contract, he is a marvellous player on his day but spends most of his days on the operating table it seems.
We have missed a great opportunity to blood Peter Steph Du Toit by not starting him in the two games against Wales and Scotland to gain invaluable experience on the Northern hemisphere’s wet fields. In Du Toit’s case, it is a question of if not now, then when? Against Scotland, the 34-year-old Bakkies Botha returns to the starting line-up after a two year hiatus and the youngster will watch the old enforcer from the stands, not even making the bench. Again, this is a conservative decision – to the detriment of South Africa’s long-term goal of winnning the World Cup in 2015.
Young stars like Serfontein, Du Toit and Kobus Reinach, amongst many others, should be thrown in at the deep-end now so that they battle-hardened come 2015.
This season Meyer has demonstrated that he is the man to lead South Africa’s expedition to Rugby World Cup 2015 in England. But, if he was the leader on that expedition to the South Pole in the cold morning of September 1911, would he have had the boldness of vision to turn back in order to win the race?
Photo: David Harrison