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Springboks in pole position for prize they haven't held in a decade - but does Rassie Erasmus care?

With the World Cup dominating the airways and a host of international warm-ups taking place over the coming weeks, it’s no surprise that the Southern Hemisphere’s premier international competition has been all but forgotten.

New Zealanders and Australians have turned their attention to the Bledisloe Cup. Those in the Northern Hemisphere, who normally have no rugby of their own to watch during this period, suddenly have a glut of test matches to look forward to.

Perhaps then it’s only fans in South Africa who are still salivating over the culmination of this year’s Rugby Championship.

Yes, the Rugby Championship may not be quite as major an accomplishment in a World Cup year – but it’s still a trophy that no Springbok captain has ever hoisted above his head in celebration.

Jannie Du Plessis, John Smith, Bismarck Du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira of South Africa celebrate with the Tri-Nations trophy in 2009. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Since Argentina joined SANZAAR and the Tri-Nations became the Rugby Championship, New Zealand have topped the ladder in six out of the seven campaigns. Australia managed to pip NZ in the 2015 tournament, but the Kiwis have still held a stranglehold over the Rugby Championship since its inception, losing just three games over the seven-year period.

Barring an upset in Salta this weekend, South Africa should become the third nation – and the last of the original competitors – to etch their name on the Rugby Championship trophy.

You have to rewind to the Tri-Nations days to find the Springboks’ last successful season – way back in 2009.

Annus mirabilis

2009 was an exceptional year for South African rugby – on all stages.

First, the Bulls took out the Super 14 with a momentous 61-17 win over New Zealand’s Chiefs in Pretoria. To this day, that’s the biggest ever win in a Super Rugby final and the odds would be slim on the 44-point margin ever being eclipsed.

Bulls and Springboks halfback mastermind Fourie du Preez scores in the 2009 Super 14 final, despite the best effort’s of Chiefs and All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina. (Photo by Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The Springboks then picked up where the Bulls left off, whitewashing the All Blacks 3-0 in the Tri-Nations and slipping up in just one match – away to the Wallabies.

Beating New Zealand in South Africa will perhaps never be the greatest accomplishment for the Springboks – victory at home should be the expectation for one of the world’s most successful teams. Doing it twice in one season, however, and then besting the All Blacks in their own backyard a month later, is something worth celebrating.

Victories in New Zealand have come rarely for South Africa. Since the dawn of the millennium, they’ve managed it just three times – in 2008, 2009 and 2018. 2009 saw them at their best, with Morne and Frans Steyn constantly punishing the All Blacks for their ill-discipline and Heinrich Brussow dominating the breakdown.

2019 may not have seen quite as impressive performances, with a win against a poor Australian side and a draw in Wellington two weekends ago the two results they have to show for their efforts. Regardless, if the Springboks trump the Pumas in Argentina this weekend, their name will almost certainly end up on the trophy – and that’s all the record books will show.

Like his fellow coaches, Springboks head honcho Rassie Erasmus is probably significantly more concerned with results at the end of the season than with whether his team comes out on top this weekend.

Building for something bigger

In the first match of the year, Erasmus chose to send out a weaker lineup against the Wallabies, with the majority of his first-choice team travelling to New Zealand in advance of the game with the All Blacks.

Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jesse Kriel are probably the only members of that first match-day squad who would expect to be starting in the World Cup knockouts – but they were still able to easily overwhelm a relatively full-strength Australian side.

The top side then fought back a week later to claim a well-deserved draw against the All Blacks in Wellington. The two rivals have shared their results evenly since Erasmus took as head coach, with a win, a draw and a loss a-piece.

South Africa now have just three games to play before they officially kick-off their World Cup campaign against New Zealand on September 21st. They’ll battle it out with Argentina over the next two weekends, then take on Japan shortly before the World Cup commences.

Comments from Erasmus indicate that he’ll continue to rotate his side in the lead-up to the flagship tournament. Perhaps we won’t see quite as many changes from match to match as we did between the Republic’s first two games of the Rugby Championship – only Makazole Mapimpi, Etzebeth and du Toit backed up for those fixtures – but Erasmus will inevitably still be trialling some combinations and tactics before D-day. He’s only been the coach of the side for fifteen matches, remember.

Which brings us back to this weekend’s match.

Victory no sure-thing

In two of the last three matches that have been played in Argentina, the Pumas have come out on top of the Springboks. The vast majority of the Argentinian side have spent the entire year together under the guise of the Jaguares and went close to winning a maiden Super Rugby title. They pushed the All Blacks close in Buenos Aires and were just metres away from stealing a first-ever win over the World Champions. They will have also received a bit of a rark-up during the week after playing well below their potential against the Wallabies.

The Pumas celebrate after tipping over South Africa in Durban in 2015. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

This isn’t going to be an easy match for the Springboks and, despite the fact that it’s been criminally undersold this year, the Rugby Championship title is still very much on the line.

Erasmus may well be in his final year as head coach with the Springboks before he moves into to a more overarching role with South African rugby. The World Cup is obviously the biggest prize on offer, but the affable coach may still want to bank some goodwill and claim the trophy that his side already have one hand on before he cedes control of the national side. If that’s the case, then expect to see a close to full-strength side rolled out this weekend. If Erasmus instead opts to run with a fairly experimental side, then you couldn’t ask for any clearer sign that the Rugby Championship, and international rugby in the Southern Hemisphere as a whole, has largely lost all meaning.

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Springboks in pole position for prize they haven't held in a decade - but does Rassie Erasmus care?