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Liz McGregor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

RWC 2015: and now for the play-offs

A NEW phase has begun for the Springboks. With their pool games having come to an end, preparation has begun in earnest for the playoffs. From now on, there are no second chances.

The players who were part of the 2011 squad will have painful memories of their last World Cup quarterfinal. A few hours after the final whistle marked their defeat to Australia, they were on the bus to the airport.

A marked difference between that squad and this one is the balance of power between senior players and the head coach. In 2011, the senior players were pretty much running the show.

There were elements of this in the first game this time around, but the shock defeat to Japan put an end to all that. Heyneke Meyer is now firmly back in charge. He is also in the position in which he seems most comfortable: wagons encircled in preparation for the fightback against a hostile world of doubters and critics.

As he said in Newcastle: “We’re at our best when we’ve been written off.”

For the past few days, the Bok team have been based in leafy Teddington in southwest London, a few kilometres from Twickenham. The Lensbury Hotel is on the Thames and has sprawling, park-like gardens — large enough to accommodate a dedicated training ground.

Monday’s media conference to announce the team was delayed for 30 seconds until SuperSport was ready to go live. We all sat frozen in position, until the metaphorical whistle was blown and proceedings could kick off. There is no doubt as to who is top dog in the media world.

Bryan Habana sat alongside Heyneke Meyer and team manager, Ian Schwartz, at the top table.

Habana is an entertaining interviewee in that his verbal technique seems to echo his performance on the field. Once he gets possession of the microphone, he does not stop to draw breath until he has reached some invisible tryline, far in the distance.

After the formal proceedings, there is a chance for reporters to chat to other players. Lwazi Mvovo, for instance, who is a happy man. He was getting another shot at a cap, courtesy of JP Pietersen’s injury.

Mvovo is something of an anomaly in high-performance rugby because he only started playing in Grade 11. Before that, he focused on soccer and athletics. He was persuaded to give rugby a go by the first team coach at his Queenstown school. “I got tricked,” joked Mvovo. “The coach said: ‘You can be on the wing. There is no contact. Just try it out’. And I did and never looked back.”

One team for which the tournament will shortly be just a bad memory is England.

It is a shame that they have been so poor. It is a mystery how this team, with huge resources, still can’t keep up with the big boys.

Shortly after the start of the Rugby World Cup, the BBC’s Panorama screened a programme on head injuries in rugby. The US’s National Football League (NFL) recently had to pay out millions of dollars to former players who are suffering long-term damage from head injuries sustained during their playing days.

Safety measures have recently been introduced to mitigate the risk and the number of concussions in NFL have been reduced as a result.

The programme argued that rugby has not adequately heeded this lesson. The number of head traumas suffered by players has gone up by more than 50%.

All of which makes the hero status of players more understandable. The extent to which they risk their health both now and in the future each time they run out onto the field for our entertainment is extraordinary.

Jean de Villiers’ playing with a broken jaw at the end of the Samoa game, for example. And Schalk Burger once again throwing himself into bone-crunching tackles, less than two years after almost dying, following complications from an earlier injury. Or Duane Vermeulen who only a few months ago had a major operation to his neck.

It takes an obsessive courage and commitment to win at this level.

And that, I suspect, helps to explain what separates the men from the boys.

*This column first appeared in Business Day



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