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South African rugby caught between a rock and a hard place

By Tom Vinicombe

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South African rugby is very much caught between a rock and a hard place.

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Five professional teams took to the field over the weekend and just one emerged victorious.

In Australia, the Springboks came up against an All Blacks side that put out their worst performance of the year – the worst of Ian Foster’s tenure – and the world champions still fell to defeat for the third time in as many weeks.

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Jordie Barrett was the top performer in the All Blacks’ nail-biting win over the Springboks.
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Jordie Barrett was the top performer in the All Blacks’ nail-biting win over the Springboks.

Over in Europe, three of South Africa’s four United Rugby Championship sides came out empty-handed against European opposition in the inaugural weekend of the new competition with just the Lions tasting victory – over Zebre, who have finished bottom in six of their eight PRO Rugby seasons to date.

The URC, when unveiled, was trumpeted as a new era for European rugby. The press releases widely gloated of how the competition would not overlap with the Six Nations or other test windows – because the fans wanted to see their teams at their best throughout the season.

Of course, one quarter of the 16 sides aren’t tied to the Six Nations. With the Springboks still playing in the Rugby Championship, the South African URC competitors are playing with one hand tied behind their back, despite their inclusion being touted as one of the major coups for the league.

While it’s not quite on the same level as hosting a photoshoot with only three-quarters of your participating sides in attendance, it’s certainly not the greatest way to welcome a new nation into your midst.

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While the Bulls of 2007 or the Lions of 2017 may have been able to cope without their top players available, such was their depth, those days are long gone. It’s not just the top-tier of players that have left South Africa’s shores to understandably seek greater earnings elsewhere, it’s the second, third and fourth tiers of players that have realised the pros of shifting away from the Republic far outweigh the cons.

There’s a handy smattering of non-Springboks propping up other URC sides at present and in all likelihood, those numbers are likely to rise thanks to the new competition which, in due time, will see South African nationals given a free trip home every season when their adopted squad travel back to South Africa to take on the local teams.

But, for the here and now, the only saving grace for the likes of Stormers and Sharks is that bar the odd exception, the URC teams scattered throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy all have their own struggles.

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Unfortunately, the biggest gripe with the PRO14, or the PRO12 before it, wasn’t that there weren’t enough middle-of-the-range sides, it was that there were few teams who could challenge the likes of Leinster and Munster, even when they chose to rest their top internationals.

Eight of the past 20 seasons have seen Leinster crowned champions, with Munster, Ulster and Connact amassing five further titles between them.

Had those superb South African Super Rugby sides of yesteryear joined the Celtic nations and Italy to form the URC, the competition would potentially be talked about as one of the best in the world – but no matter the slick coat of paint the tournament has received, you can’t polish a turd.

While it’s difficult to envisage a situation where the lesser sides rise to meet those in the top echelon – although Benetton had admittedly done a mighty fine job over the past few seasons to finally give Italy some hope of silverware – the situation can’t get any easier for South Africa unless something major changes.

While the Bulls and Sharks were getting put to the sword by Leinster and Munster, the Springboks were halfway across the world playing perhaps their least expansive game of all time.

The Springboks are a top five international side. Their abilities were unfairly pumped up by the media following their World Cup win in 2019 and there’s been criticism dished out to them by the very same media for the side not living up to their lofty expectations since they came crashing back down to Earth against the Wallabies, but they’re still a team with enough talent in their ranks to challenge the best in the business, wherever they sit amongst that highest tier.

But they’re using a strategy that’s best described as rugby’s equivalent of parking the bus in football.

When a minnow fights their way into the FIFA World Cup and comes up against a titan of the sport, like Germany or Spain, parking the bus is a legitimate strategy. You know there’s no way you can compete and it’s admirable to come within a whisker of besting your opposition (or going one better), no matter how you achieve that success.

But if Portugal or Uruguay, with the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez, were to play an all-out defensive game, their fans – and fans of the sport in general – would rightly be up in arms.

With devastating backs at their disposal like Makazola Mapimpi, Damian de Allende and Willie le Roux, the Springboks have the firepower to win and win well without resorting to the dire tactics that they’re currently employing.

Unlike a football minnow defying the odds, there’s nothing admirable about the World Champions coming close to beating their opposition – they should be hugely frustrated with any loss, no matter the circumstances.

Against a better-performing All Blacks side – like the one we’ve seen most weekends throughout the test season – the Springboks would have been cut to ribbons. And while NZ made a huge number of errors on Saturday (some of which were absolutely the product of the pressure applied by their opposition), you suspect they won’t be quite as terrible in the upcoming fixture. Looking at the Springboks, however, are there any areas where they can seriously improve, except for completely flipping their game plan?

Their strangling strategy might work against some of the Northern Hemisphere sides when they go through their seasonal lulls and revert to relatively kick-heavy rugby, but against teams willing to play expansively – which is basically every top international side at present, regardless of what hemisphere you look to – it’s destined to fail.

A move to the Six Nations would at least allow their United Rugby Championship sides to play with their full contingent throughout the season, but in the swamps of European winters, the Springboks’ rugby would shift even further towards the ‘kick and hope’ strategy they’re currently content to employ.

The Springboks, at their best, bring something different to the Rugby Championship. They’re physical, they’re aggressive, they do tend towards slightly more forward-oriented play, but they’re also not afraid to call on their dangerous talents out wide. Bryan Habana, playing in the current Springboks side, would not have had his name etched in history as one of the greatest wings of all time.

The Springboks aren’t at their best, at present, and unless there’s a mindset change, they likely never will be.

South African fans – and the rugby world in general – are being robbed of top quality South African rugby, whether it’s at test level or in the club game, and with the nation partially in the Northern Hemisphere camp and partially in the Southern, it’s hard to see a situation where we’ll ever see the country as a whole back to its best.

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South African rugby caught between a rock and a hard place

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