There are four periods of extended misery in Springbok rugby history: 1963-65, 1972-74, 1996-97 and 2000 to 2003. The 1972-74 period was of course the loss against John Pullen’s England team and the dreadful series lost against the 1974 lions. The period 1996 to 1997 –the Markgraaf/Du Plessis era- was a time when South Africa was able to win only 4 tests out of 12 against New Zealand. It was also during this period that South Africa lost, for the first time, -in its long rugby history- a series at home against the All Blacks. What made it worst is the fact that South Africa was the reigning world champions at the time.
The 2000 to 2003 period was the Harry Viljoen/Straeuli era. A time when South Africa could won only 1 out of 4 test against France; 2 out of 5 tests against Australia. A time when the Springboks lost 4 out 4 tests against England; 7 out of 7 against New Zealand and capped it with a deplorable loss against Scotland on 16 November 2002 at Murrayfield, Edinburg.
It is very interesting that these four horrible periods in South African rugby history have essentially four things in common namely poor coaching; playing young and inexperienced players, lots of chopping an changing to the side, weak forward play and/or a shift from forward dominated approach to “running rugby”.
There is a 5th factor which was common to these four periods and I mention it separately from the other four because it a more elusive factor. Something that is harder to define or to pin down in terms of finding the reason why it was present within the team but most importantly it is a factor that is to a large extend -although not exclusively- a byproduct of most of the first four factors (identified above). It is the factor of team spirit or group cohesiveness.
In the first of these mentioned periods -1963 to 1965- the rot started when South Africa tied a four test series against Australia (which I wrote about here). That was followed up with a loss against France at home in 1964 and defeats against Ireland and Scotland during the 1964/65 end of year tour. The signs were clear South African rugby had problems. The 1965 tour started disastrous when South Africa lost two tests against Australia (as described here and here) on their way to New Zealand.
There was also the loss against New South Wales (described here) and in the second tour match in New Zealand a loss against Wellington (described here). After defeats in the first two tests against New Zealand South Africa had an appalling record of seven test defeats in a row as well as two defeats against provincial sides.
South Africa media lamented the weakness of the Springbok forwards, their reluctance to back up, their inept rucking and poor support and driving in the lineouts. In the second test the lack of defence and structure around set pièces (scrum and lineouts) led directly to two All Black tries.
The puzzle in 1965 was that the Springboks had excellent backs in men like John Gainsford, Mannetjies Roux, Jannie Engelbrecht, Keith Oxlee and Syd Nomis, and could draw on some considerable forwards: Rhodesian prop Andy MacDonald, who fought a lion with his bare hands and survived (described here); Natal hooker Don Walton; and legends past and future such as Frik du Preez, Tiny Naude, Jan Ellis, Doug Hopwood, Tommy Bedford, Hannes Marais, Abe Malan and Lofty Nel. Players of the caliber that would have excelled in any era, so clearly there was something wrong with the South African spirit not diminishing to any extend the fact that they were up against one of the all time great All Black packs.
It may be relevant that, in the country as a whole, relations between English- and Afrikaans-speakers had been somewhat strained since the achievement of a republic in 1961. The national party’s rigid separation not only of black and white, but also of schools for the two prominent white cultural groups, had had its effect.
For the first time in Springbok history, the fate of a series was less important than victory in a particular match, so anxious was everyone to break the losing run. In the Springbok camp before the third test, nothing was as it seemed. Hopwood, the Cape Town English-speaker who many believed should have been captain in the first place, was restored as No8 and unofficial pack leader. The controversial Transvaal Afrikaner Jannie Barnard, capable of brilliant but risky playmaking, replaced Natal’s pedigreed veteran flyhalf, Keith Oxlee. When Naude kicked the penalty goal for a 19-16 win, the relief was out of proportion to the achievement, indicating how severely a leading rugby nation had lost its confidence.
Ironically, the lack of Springbok leadership manifested itself in the build-up to that great penalty kick under pressure. As mentioned in one of my previous posts (see third test) Gertjie Brynard tried to convince Tiny Naude to go for a tap kick and a cheeky attempt to score. Naude insisted on taking the kick and the result is history. There is no mention in any account -of this event- of a decision by Captain Dawie de Villiers.
It is my speculative opinion that statements –and subsequent events- about Maori by Prime Minster Verwoerd, in what became known as his Loskop Dam speech, shamed both the country’s rugby fans and the players who were on tour in New Zealand. They were creatures of their time and little was said, but to this day the sour after taste informs perceptions of the 1965 tour, which has become a backwater in the history of South African rugby. It was probably the only series this century in which the Springboks lacked passion as well as the necessary skills, and were, therefore, lacking in honour.