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Playtime is over. Only a resounding win will do for Springboks

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa's wing Makazole Mapimpi (R) celebrates after he scores a try during the Autumn International friendly rugby union match between Scotland and South Africa at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh on November 13, 2021. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP) (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

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Right then, playtime is over. The experimental gadgets have been stowed away and the more pragmatic blunt instruments have been brought back. There are no excuses. No one is making any. The Springboks mean business and nothing but a resounding and comprehensive display will do.

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When Wales first touched down in South Africa, many rugby observers – present company included – predicted a one-sided three-nil wash. This was not born out of arrogance or disrespect. In their most recent assignment, Wales coughed up a lead and lost to Italy on their own patch for the first time in their history. The regions were in disarray. The youth teams were a shambles. And coach Wayne Pivac appeared bereft of game-changing ideas.

Conversely, the Springboks juggernaut was in full flow. Fuelled by their social responsibility, their aggrandising mythology, and a forward pack that must surely consume enough red meat to leave a noticeable carbon footprint on their own, the South Africans marched into this rubber with well-deserved confidence.

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They’d beaten the British and Irish Lions despite being hamstrung by Covid-19 parameters. Two of their franchises charged towards the United Rugby Championship final. And with the addition of overseas based players, they boasted enough depth to field two Test quality outfits.

The first game was a lot tighter than anyone but the most ardent Wales fan could have predicted. But the Springboks won and winning, as coach Jacques Nienaber has said, is the only currency this team deals in.

Wales claimed the second match. But that was against a depleted team that, let’s be honest, was not the strongest match-day squad available. Yes they were wearing the Springbok badge, and yes Wales lifted their game and fully deserved their inaugural Test victory on South African soil, but we’re dealing in half-truths if we choose to look back on that contest without acknowledging the glaring caveat.

There will be nothing of the sort in Cape Town. This is a seminal moment in Nienaber’s tenure as coach. Pundits, journalists and fans still believe that Rassie Erasmus is pulling the strings. That may well be true and on the evidence of the Two Sides documentary that chronicled the Lions series, there is enough weight behind this theory.

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Nienaber is not fighting for his job. He is a well-liked and astute coach and has the backing of the team. Besides, he’s not going to get the sack with just over a year until he embarks on a World Cup title defence.

Instead, Nienaber and his Springboks are out to reassert an aura that last week’s reverse has somewhat diminished. Forget the rankings – South Africa are now third behind France and Ireland – this is less tangible than World Rugby’s metrics. Only one outcome will rekindle the faith of their devoted supporters.

There are, however, three possible outcomes. The first is almost unthinkable as far as Springboks loyalists are concerned: Wales might win. Of course they might. They were mightily impressive last week. Gareth Anscombe’s fairytale stole the show but every man in red dug deep and pulled out a performance that will echo through Welsh rugby history. Momentum is a mysterious variable in elite sport and series are often decided by the direction of the wind.

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That would be catastrophic for South Africa but the next possible outcome would hardly constitute a roaring success. The Springboks may scrape a win, just as they did in Pretoria. Nienaber and his coaches have stressed that an ugly win still counts but we shouldn’t buy that and Springboks fans shouldn’t accept it either.

Players and coaches have spoken of “going to the gutter” but that rhetoric is starting to stink. It might chime in a Lions series or in crucial World Cup knockout matches, but this is a bilateral tour against the eighth-best team in the world. South Africans should hold the team to a higher standard than gutter scraps and bar-room brawls.

That is not to say that they need to start throwing the ball around and play Barbarians rugby. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and well-worked set-pieces and dominant first-phase play can still take the breath away.

Only a ruthless win, both on the scoreboard and throughout the run of play, will suffice. That is no slight on a Wales squad that includes three players with over 100 Test caps. Their man at No 8 has a claim to being the best in his position over the last 10 years. Their line-out is well drilled and they have pace to burn out wide. But Wales are not going to win next year’s World Cup. South Africa might. Champion teams are supposed to bury those below them. A statement victory is required.

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Nienaber’s selection is a declaration of intent. Some might quibble over Jaden Hendrikse starting ahead of Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf, but this is based on form rather than reputation. Willie le Roux similarly divides opinion but anyone worth listening to in South African rugby will emphasise his influence across the park. Go and watch all of South Africa’s tries in the last five or six years that were not scored from a rolling maul. There’s a good chance le Roux had a hand in most of them.

The six-two split is also a sign that Nienaber is eager to return to a tried and tested formula. A world class front row on the bench is bolstered by three adaptable forwards while the all-round abilities of Damien Willemse and le Roux means that every backline position is covered.

Expect box kicks and big mauls with every cog fitting into the cohesive machine. It won’t be pretty. It doesn’t have to be. What it needs to be is punishing, assertive and dominant. Nothing else will do.

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