Jake White: I have a sneaky feeling about this World Cup
Before I talk about the upcoming World Cup, I have to talk about that game at Twickenham. For me, it was an outlier. Not the result, because I think the Springboks are good enough to beat any team if they play well, but whenever you get to play a New Zealand side without Brodie Retallick, Shannon Frizzell, Joe Moody and Tyrel Lomax, who went off early, and a lock in Scott Barrett who got red carded, then a curious end result becomes more likely.
Yes, it was fantastic to watch as a South African fan, particularly because we had been on the losing side more often than not in recent years, but it was so one-sided at one stage that I can’t see it happening again.
I remember travelling to New Zealand with Nick Mallett in 1998. We stacked up pretty well against the All Blacks back then. In 50 Tests, it was something like 26 Tests to New Zealand and 24 to South Africa, but in the 50 Tests since, we only won only 14 Tests to their 36, so we were due some payback. The trick now is keeping it going.
I saw afterwards, Ian Foster quip that they weren’t interested in winning the Qatar Airways Cup, but no All Black coach I’ve ever known doesn’t want to lift a Cup – if they played for the Mickey Mouse Cup, they’d want to win it. That’s the All Black mentality. Right now, every quote is just mind games. Coaches are aware that every sentence they say is going to be dissected over and over again, and could get used in a positive way against them, or with them, depending on the results.
I also heard Jeff Wilson say it was the best the Springboks can play. That’s fine, he’s entitled to his opinion, but in my eyes, that performance was good enough to win the World Cup. It’s whether they can replicate that level of performance against everyone over seven weeks. That’s the challenge.
How will the All Blacks be feeling after such a humiliation? Having been with the Springboks in 2006 and being at the sharp end of some pretty chastening defeats, I can tell you in hindsight, that it formed part of the resilience that saw us winning the 2007 World Cup. It’s in adversity that you find out about your character, and we had it in spades. We had lost Pierre Spies to a blood condition before the tournament and Jean de Villiers in the opening game but all the bad news forced us to adapt and we turned it into a positive.
What makes sport so intriguing is that you never know what boost you’ll get from winning a game and conversely what negatives you’ll get from a heavy defeat. For that reason, we’re about to find out a lot more about this current All Blacks team.
Every Springbok fan is now super-pumped for this World Cup. Someone asked me whether the Boks could win the tournament? My answer is this. One hundred per cent they can win it, but you could say that about a half a dozen teams out in France, even the outsiders, like Scotland, Australia or Wales. Will they win it? Probably not, but they could. Look at the Wallabies, they have barely won a game in the last two years. Look at England. They are bang out of form but a few bounces of the ball go their way and they’re closing in on a World Cup final. This last year has seen some incredible results. When you see what Fiji, Georgia and Italy have done and even Samoa, who gave Ireland fright last weekend. No one knows what to expect which is why it could be the best World Cup yet.
Before the last World Cup, the general consensus was that it was imperative to win every game to go on and lift the World Cup. Well all that changed in 2019. If you lose a game in the Pool stages, you can still win it. I have a sneaky feeling it will be the same this time round, especially when you look at the top half of that draw.
Looking at the players, it was incredible to see the reception Siya (Kolisi) had. It just shows how influential he is in the camp. Reading between the lines, it was almost pre-ordained he made it back – never in doubt. Now I don’t know the inner workings of that squad but if you saw Martin Johnson with Sir Clive Woodward, Kitch Christie with Francois Pienaar or John Eales with Rod McQueen; the captain and coach picture has to be right and Siya being back in the picture is vital to the Boks’ cause. Any Springbok captain has an ambassadorial role in SA because rugby is so important to the national psyche and Siya is no different. I’ve also got a word for RG Snyman. I think if he can stay fit, I have no doubt he’ll be the best player in the world, he’s that special.
What really pleased me was seeing two Bulls thriving and a third continuing to prove the doubters wrong. To see Canan (Moodie) coming through at 13 brought a smile to my face. As a 20-year-old, matching up against a class act like Rieko Ioane, he more than held his own. I know he played on the wing against Wales, but he’s been a centre his whole life and I was going to move him there this season anyway. As for Kurt-Lee (Arendse), he is an out-and-out wing and he has now played ten Tests and scored 11 tries. That’s incredible, and he’s faced New Zealand, Australia, England, Argentina – so we’re not talking minnows, and shone. Knowing them as I do, both boys are very modest and work extremely hard. They know where they come from and haven’t forgotten their roots. Canan is at the club every single day, even on his days off. He’ll offer to be ballboy for the women’s team or the age-grade team. He’s in love with the game but he doesn’t obsess and has a balance in his life.
As for Willie le Roux, who is nursing a niggle; his critics don’t understand what happens on the pitch. Dai Young sent me a lovely text when he knew he was coming home, saying, ‘great signing, Jake, when he was at Wasps, he was unbelievable for us.’ I think he’s going to have a huge influence at the Bulls.
When Canan and Kurt-Lee come back from the Boks camp, they say that having Willie behind them is like having a coach on the pitch. He is massively appreciated by the players he plays with and his opponents know how dangerous he can be. There are similarities with Percy Montgomery. When Monty was playing full-back, he was a Marmite character; some loved him, others not so much, yet when I coached overseas, I spoke to All Blacks, or coaches like Steve Hansen or Graham Henry, who couldn’t believe how he was questioned. When you kicked the ball to Monty, you’d knew you’d be backpedalling when he returned it with interest. Sides were terrified to kick to him. I’m sure teams that analyse the Boks know how dangerous Willie is and how much emphasis they have to give him. Whether he gets the love from the supporters or the pundits, that’s immaterial, he has respect from his friends and colleagues, which is what matters to him.
Finally, in a week’s time, the Springboks will be kicking off against Scotland.
I know that they won’t be underestimating Gregor Townsend’s men. When they play their best rugby, comprised of players from Glasgow and Edinburgh, the bottom line is that they are a cohesive, very well-coached and well-drilled side. They often start really well in tournaments and campaigns. Look at how they beat England in the first Six Nations game this year and last. Townsend’s teams don’t take much time to settle, so it’s going to be a mighty test for South Africa and a benchmark for how good they will have to be in France.
With the South African guys in the Scotland camp, they are sure to be giving intel. Guys like WP Nel, Pierre Schoeman, Duhan van der Merwe and Kyle Steyn know our system well. Yet I was watching Duhan’s brother eating breakfast the other day and thinking, ‘the days of having hidden secrets is long gone’. With social media and the way rugby is going, there is so much more analysis going on. There will be no surprises, just a proper arm-wrestle and further emphasis that this World Cup could be won by anybody. Bring it on!
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