The Boks were on the front and back pages of South African newspapers on Monday and it was not a pretty sight after the death of a World Cup dream.
Large, sad, close-up pictures of captain John Smit and coach Peter de Villiers dominated the front of the Johannesburg Star, the same pair also took a lot of page-one space in The Times and Business Day had De Villiers alone and seemingly lost as he crossed the Wellington pitch.
As De Villiers accepted that his often controversial four-year reign was over and Smit confirmed that the sun had set on his long, mostly successful Test career, newspapers laid the blame for a 11-9 quarter-final loss to Australia Sunday on a failure to take chances and referee Bryce Lawrence.
The Star found New Zealand-born referee Lawrence “criminally negligent” for allowing Wallabies flank David Pocock “to wrestle on the ground in flagrant disregard of the law that states you must stay on your feet at ruck time”.
The writer could barely contain his anger, telling Lawrence a visit to an optician was overdue, as he tried to explain why the breakdown became “madness” with the referee failing to spot repeated infringements.
“It was the Springboks turn yesterday (Sunday) to discover that in sport fate can indeed be a fickle mistress. The Boks were all over the Aussies like a rash ... they dominated territory and had an advantage in possession.
“Victor Matfield imperiously destroyed the Aussie line-out, poaching six throws. The Wallabies had to make three times more tackles than the Boks yet somehow forced the Boks into butchering half a dozen try-scoring opportunities while making the most of rare forays.”
But the article also saw hope of the horizon in the slender shape of full-back Patrick Lambie, the youngster who looks set for a long stay in a Springbok team sure to be radically different when they next play in mid-2012 at home to fellow quarter-finals losers England.
“He was brilliant in everything he did from the back. He hit the line at pace, fielded the high ball with assurance and made telling tackles,” the Star said of a 20-year-old who can operate at full-back, centre or fly-half.
The Times summarised the tenure of De Villiers, the first black Springboks coach, as a “rollercoaster ride ... sometimes misunderstood, often lost in translation, all too frequently pouring metaphors into the mixer.
“When it came to coaching, the input of others usurped his own. He also tried to achieve the impossible - winning consecutive (Rugby World Cup) titles with the spine of the team that won four years ago.”
Hooker Smit, sporting battle scars on both sides of his face, only had kind words for De Villiers, the subject of much media criticism at home and abroad during a reign highlighted by a Test series success over the British and Irish Lions and a Tri-Nations title two seasons ago.
“He is not the usual coach that any of us were used to, but we thoroughly enjoyed him over the years. He has given us freedom and space, but he also tightened things up when we took advantage of that,” Smit admitted to Business Day.