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Springboks’ mental exhaustion understandable

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Springbok Lood de Jager is back in the team for Saturday’s clash against the All Blacks. Picture: Rodger Bosch, AFP

The Boks have been living in extraordinary circumstances since they first assembled in isolation in Bloemfontein in June.

NOW THAT the dust has settled on the Boks’ horror fortnight against the Wallabies, we can reflect unemotionally on what went wrong and whether it can be put right in the space of a week as Saturday’s Centenary Test against the All Blacks approaches.

If you interpret what the Springbok coaching staff and the players themselves have been saying in the wake of the unexpected defeats, they have been suffering from mental staleness, even burn-out, and in hindsight it is understandable.

The Boks have been living in extraordinary circumstances since they first assembled in isolation in Bloemfontein in June. It took a herculean effort to accelerate from a standing start — they had not played a Test match in 18 months — to beat the British & Irish Lions in an extremely tense series.

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A month in Gqebehra followed and two workmanlike victories over the disappointing Pumas were secured, and then it was off to Australia and four more weeks of isolation in a resort in Queensland.

Despite so many warnings that the Wallabies were to be underestimated at the Boks’ peril, Siya Kolisi’s men looked flat, at times an exhausted force, especially mentally, with so many poor decisions made and so many lapses in discipline.

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The Boks’ tackling, usually their strongest point, became their weakness. It is a fact of rugby that you can tell where a team is mentally by how they defend, and 40 missed tackles in their two losses to the Wallabies says it all.

Part of this mental slackness is the inevitable anti-climax that follows an event as huge as a Lions series, which is a once-in-a-career event for South African players (unless you’re Morné Steyn …).

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The good news is that the losses to the Aussies has been the jolt of reality the Boks needed to come back down to earth.

The fog will have cleared and they surely will be in tune with the enormity of the challenge that is presented by an All Black team in sublime form and highly motivated to beat the world champions.

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There will be clarity now in exactly how the Boks must play to beat the Kiwis and the effort and intensity required to implement what will definitely be a back-to-basics strategy.

The match 23 has been tweaked sensibly too, with the most notable change being in the second row where Lood de Jager returns from concussion (for Marvin Orie). De Jager is an enormously influential player. When he is in the team, the line-out runs efficiently and the opposition throw is in danger. De Jager is a very clever player and highly respected by his teammates.

I also like the backline changes on the bench where the experienced Frans Steyn and Elton Jantjies are recalled.

I thought the backline cover on the bench the previous week was fragile and I still cannot understand taking flyhalf Handré Pollard off with 15 minutes to go and bringing on the erratic Damian Willemse in a position he has barely played this year.

He was always going to make mistakes, and he did. Jantjies is a much better bet, and having Steyn in the final quarter will be reassuring not only because of the calmness he will bring but also because he can kick monster penalty goals. He has done it before against the All Blacks, once kicking three from inside his own half to win a Test match in Hamilton (2009).

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