Jake White: Test rugby has never been so unpredictable
After the last month of crazy Rugby Championship results, it made me think the days of one team dominating rugby are over. With the level of analysis and preparation that goes into Test rugby, it seems impossible that one side will dominate like the All Blacks have for so long. For New Zealand, their loss of supremacy is a massive blow, because they were the one sporting team who appeared to have cracked the code. They were outliers in professional sport and that appears to be under threat
Test rugby has never been so unpredictable. In 2022, Italy have beaten Wales for the first time in Cardiff, Argentina and Ireland have beaten the All Blacks for the first time in New Zealand and Wales have finally beaten the Springboks on their own turf, and we’re only in September. It’s unprecedented.
I’m not saying the dominance of rugby’s big beasts is over, however, because so much money is pumped into the top echelons of the game. In 12 months’ time, it would be a huge surprise if a minnow other than France, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand or England won the World Cup, whereas in football you can still have freak results in tournament football. World Rugby will be thrilled that games are so competitive right now. It draws in the neutrals to the game, and ultimately, what is sport without genuine competition? If you follow sporting fixtures around the world, fans want to go to a game where any team can beat another on ‘any given Sunday’.
Organisers want a situation where any number of countries can win the World Cup. That’s no different to the URC. If you have the Bulls beating Leinster, or Benetton beating the Stormers, the fans love it. It’s the product all organisers are striving for.
What this unpredictability does is put pressure on coaches and their unions. The All Blacks will be feeling this for the first time, whereas it’s a familiar feeling for other unions and they won’t like it one bit.
What is unique to rugby is its tactical nuances. For example, do you go with a big or agile pack of forwards? Do you need a goal-kicker? What type of No 9 do you need? Do you select a game-manager or maverick at 10? There are so many variables in our game for fans to get their teeth stuck into. You can’t see them walking away just because their team isn’t getting the results they want.
So what has this bumpy 2022 done to the Springboks? I’ve been watching with interest, because I’ve been one of those coaches who’s gone through a four-year cycle going into a World Cup campaign with its ups and downs. I went through the lows of 2006, which was a great leveller for any coach, to the highs of winning the World Cup in 2007. Great sides go through slumps, some emerge, some don’t. I read about Clive Woodward’s post-2003 campaign. England slumped and within months he was gone.
Ian Foster and Jacques Nienaber are going through the same test of their character. There will be a lot of chat about whether you change coaches so close to a World Cup, or whether you change tactics, but I come back to the fact the era of dominance for one team is over. There are no guarantees in this game. Making big calls on coaches is a gamble. In saying that, the pressure will build on Nienaber if he doesn’t start winning soon. That’s the weight of expectation from fans, the immense passion they bring and the desire to create unforgettable memories.
Jacques Nienaber announced his team on Tuesday before the Australia Test and it made me think, why do coaches announce our team so early in Test week? In football it’s an hour before the kick-off, so where’s the logic in our game? You can replace a player on the morning of the game in rugby so why go public? I understand that a coach wants to give a selected fifteen certainty to prepare mentally and physically, or to prevent leaks to the press, but I wonder if naming it later will heighten excitement and discussion further into the week. It’s one to ponder as rugby needs to keep evolving and improving the product.
I saw there was a brouhaha over some of the well-documented decisions made by referee Paul Williams on the weekend, but the management will not be blaming the ref for the loss in Adelaide I can assure you. Emotions can overflow after a few beers and of course, fans watch sport through a partisan lens, but the criticism of the referee by one journalist wasn’t representative of the general feeling in South Africa. The fact remains that the Springboks didn’t help themselves with the way they played.
For Saturday, the Boks have made eight changes, many of them forced due to injury, so it won’t get any easier and the Wallabies have their tails up. Central to the changes are the loss of three linchpins in this Springbok set-up. Pieter Steph du Toit, Handre Pollard and Lukhanyo Am are all out, which is a big blow. Am is the first name on the team sheet because his form has been sensational, Du Toit is a former World Player of the Year, while any conversations around Pollard centre on who plays as his understudy, which underlines his importance to the Boks. They are almost impossible to replace, but what it does do now is create an opportunity for some players to put their hands up, guys like Damien Willemse and Canan Moodie.
I’ve been asked a lot about individual performances but when the team isn’t clicking, it’s difficult. Sure Kwagga Smith scored two tries in last weekend’s Test, but people aren’t talking about that, they’re talking about the Springboks’ shortcomings. It’s the same for the All Blacks. Is Ardie Savea playing well? Sure, but no one is focusing on that because they’re losing. The Springboks will be focusing on making sure the team gets that curve right, and rightly so.
What this group of players, coaches and administrators have worked out, irrespective of recent results, is that they have a recipe they know will get success. The picking of Deon Fourie I believe is something to ape the picking of Schalk Brits in 2019. There are similarities in the way they are trying to replicate 2019’s success. Now, you’re only going to find out if that works if you try it. There’s no magic wand. You have to believe in what you’re doing. Kitch Christie played Mark Andrews in the 1995 World Cup final as a No 8, when he was really a lock. If the Boks had lost that final, I can tell you now people would still be talking about how Kitch never got it right. Every coach lives and dies in a World Cup cycle by his results in a World Cup. Everything else in between is forgotten about if you lift the trophy.
Looking ahead, I’ve seen some criticism of our older players, but only the coaches and the players themselves know if they have the legs to stretch to another World Cup campaign.
The Springboks will have a really good run-up to the World Cup, where they will have three or four months together to manage certain players’ individual workloads, where the players aren’t being pushed hard by their clubs. That changes the complexion of selection after the rigours of domestic rugby. I’d also say fans can’t measure the worth of individuals unless they’re in camp. Having Alun Wyn Jones as squad number No 35 in the squad could be massive for how Wales fare in the World Cup, and it could be the same for Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn. What they add off the field in terms of leadership and motivation is something you can’t measure purely by performances on the pitch. Rumours of their demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
So who will win in Sydney? Well, one certainty is the uncertainty. More surprises could be in store.