When gods become men
All teams have their natural cycles of decline and fall, an internal chemistry that sees them age before our eyes.
It's a curiously poignant process, watching a team become a shadow of their former selves. As a fan, you become strangely jammed, hoping, on the one hand, that they succeed, despite evidence to the contrary; on the other, knowing that the march of time is irreversibly clarifying. Time marks you, and despite yesterday's handsome 49-3 win against a weak Fiji, it has marked the Springboks in New Zealand unmistakably.
Normally teams are able to arrest decline by succession planning and a degree of coaching courage. But unlike, say, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, who dropped Matt Giteau before the competition, the Bok coaching staff have failed the bravery test.
Coach Peter de Villiers has become increasingly convoluted in justifying his support for his captain, John Smit, who threatens to pervert his legacy by sheer bloody-mindedness. Bismarck du Plessis is a hungrier, more confrontational player, a human wrecking ball; Smit is a drowning man clinging to the increasingly tattered shreds of his reputation.
The justification for Smit's continued inclusion is that he melds and moulds, unifies and leads. But elite sportsmen are notoriously sensitive to sporting imperfection, and Smit's outstanding leadership abilities are being compromised by his on-field failings. His authority ultimately derives from his ability as a player. When that ability is compromised, so is his natural authority.
At a certain level, then, what we are witnessing from afar with the Boks in New Zealand is a human drama. It is the universal drama of man's pitched battle with time. It might be more. What we might see develop over the coming weeks is a fully fledged tragedy. It is the tragedy of heroes allowing their hubris - roughly defined as an excess of arrogance and pride - to compromise their good sense, and it is playing out on sport's greatest stage - a World Cup.
We all allow hubris to compromise good sense. And we all allow hubris to compromise sense, because we are human beings and are prey to the failings of vanity, what the American novelist Philip Roth has called the human stain.
But our dramas are small, suburban, domestic, private, played out in the head, the kitchen, the bedroom, the car. The national rugby side play out their drama on an infinitely larger stage. It is a stage we all see when we turn on our televisions, a stage that encourages us to all have opinions and a stage that is managed to a surely unpalatable degree by SuperSport, who, more than any other institution in this country, have shaped the cosy, self-regarding realm of what passes for rugby debate in this country.
If all of this reads like the perverse scratchings of a frustrated, desk-bound hack, take a look at the videos of Fourie du Preez from the 2007 World Cup in France. Here is a player in his natural element in the way a fish belongs in water. He is not only quick-witted, but fleet of foot and smart of hand. In the quarter-final against England, he went round the opposition, he conducted the game. He was confident enough in his body to commit to 50-50 balls. Even with the virtue of hindsight, it's apparent that Du Preez was playing the game in a dimension no one else was playing in that day in Paris. He was a rugby god, a rarecase of a sportsman completely at one with his talent.
The Du Preez of the recent Super 15 season was a player petulant and frustrated by turns, someone who spent more time than he should bickering with the referee. His performance against Wales last Sunday was that of a man who has found his lust for the game progressively beaten out of him.
With him, we are not simply watching a player at odds with his form, where he and that form will be reconciled like estranged partners in a troubled marriage. Du Preez has been playing this kind of rugby for months. To pervert for a moment the title of Milan Kundera's wonderful book, what we're seeing in New Zealand is the unbearable pathos of being Fourie du Preez.
Du Preez and Smit and Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana have just been doing what they've been doing for too long to take the punishment any more. Experience has transformed itself into a deadweight, more stubbornness and obstinacy than wisdom. Indeed, you begin to suspect a strange collusion between the senior players and the coaching staff, one which will end in disappointment and possible humiliation come the latter stages of the competition.
When there is good reason to be bold, De Villiers seems petrified of making an important decision. Perhaps he'll do something unspeakably brave and bring Gio Aplon off the bench in the 71st minute against Samoa.
Haven't the younger, less battered players been wonderful this World Cup? The Heinrich Brussows, the Francois Hougaards, the Frans Steyns? This is also part of the current Bok problem: that there seem to be different degrees of hunger in the side.
While the younger men are playing rugby with a brio and sense of freedom and personal expression that can be felt thousands of miles away, the older generation are merely going through their lines, pros who have gone through the mind-numbing boredom of doing Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap on the Charing Cross Road one time too many.
There is a possible corrective to all of this. There are tales of teams discovering themselves during a World Cup, of realising, as the French did in the 2006 soccer World Cup, that they had experienced a rare degree of luck in getting to the knockout stages, so it was time to galvanise themselves. Before meeting Italy in the 2006 final in Germany, remember, France beat Spain and Brazil, two of the pre-competition favourites.
This might happen with the Boks. We hope it will. We hope matters move along speedily to late-night meetings behind closed doors, with some brave and far-sighted player or member of the coaching team ready to remedy what everyone privately acknowledges. Unfortunately, all the indications are that the Springbok defence of their crown is living on borrowed time, a campaign managed by a confederacy of dunces.