South Africa coach Peter de Villiers is running out of time and excuses with his team having lost the winning habit and a Rugby World Cup defence less than one month away.
The Springboks tackle fiercest rivals New Zealand in Port Elizabeth on Saturday against a depressing backdrop of eight defeats from the last nine Tri-Nations Tests while the head coach acts like he is auditioning for a spin doctor position.
No matter how badly the green and gold perform, and they have been poor much of the time since he succeeded Jake White after South Africa won the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the man in charge never accepts he might be part of the problem.
De Villiers promised excitement, success and more black Springboks when he took over only to fall short in three of four seasons and the number of black first choices has risen by just one with prop Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira born and reared in Zimbabwe.
Never a coach at Super 14 level, De Villiers was put in charge of a team that had won a record-equalling two World Cup tournaments and enjoyed passionate support with most home Tests sold out weeks in advance.
The team that collapsed in the second half when losing 14-9 to Australia in Durban last Saturday was, bar injured loose forwards Schalk Burger and Juan Smith, the best available after a virtual ‘B’ team went to Sydney and Wellington and suffered humiliating losses.
“In my opinion the only place we lost tonight was on the scoreboard,” said De Villiers with a straight face at the post-match media conference as if anywhere other than the scoreboard counted.
South African rugby writers have grown tired of De Villiers spin doctoring and did not spare him after the Australia Test, which ended with the mood of the crowd matching the dark, rain-laden clouds.
Liam del Carme of the Sunday Times said the world champions looked “ill-equipped in game plan and personnel to mount a serious challenge in their title defence” which begins against Wales on September 11 in Wellington.
“The Springboks, ponderous and predictable for most of the game, could not make up the shortfall in guile and skill with their courage and determination,” he wrote in the largest circulation South African weekend newspaper.
“The grim reality for coach Peter de Villiers is that he has now played his best team and has nothing to fall back on. More damningly, the Springboks are stuck in a one-dimensional rut.
“While the Wallabies embraced attack, which required high-risk, high-reward off-loads in the tackle and generally tried to exploit space, the Springboks were sterile in their attempted advances, built around finding the embrace of the first Wallaby tackler.”
Award-winning Mike Greenaway of the Durban Daily News summarised a second consecutive Tri-Nations home loss to the Wallabies as a “crashing disappointment and crushing concern looking forward to New Zealand.
“When they can deliver nothing more than 30 minutes of blood-and-guts effort before wilting and fading away into nothingness, serious questions have to be asked about the validity of the Springboks’ claim that they can defend their world crown.”
De Villiers promised a bold new world far removed from the kick-chase-swarm-score one he inherited from White, but up to 12 of the team that defeated England 15-6 in the 2007 World Cup final could face Wales.
Full-back Percy Montgomery and loose-head prop Os du Randt have retired and tight-head CJ van der Linde is in the 27-man squad for the New Zealand Test, but out of favour for a starting place.
De Villiers could yet force critics to consume large helpings of humble pie, but the widespread fear within one of the great rugby union nations is that the Springboks will fail, probably in the semi-finals against hosts New Zealand.