Were the Springboks the world's best team in 2021?
The RugbyPass Round Table writers answer the big questions at the end of 2021, looking back at the year that was in context to what lays ahead. Alex McLeod (AM), Tom Vinicombe (TV), Nick Turnbull (NT), Mike Rehu (MR), Ben Smith (BS), Jordan King (JK), Jack O’Rourke (JO) and Finn Morton (FM) weigh in on a range of topics on the international game and more in this end-of-2021 review.
After sitting out the entire 2020 season, the Springboks returned to rugby as World Rugby’s number one ranked team.
They had limited preparation for the Lions series, getting in one clash against Georgia and one more warm-up under the guise of South Africa ‘A’. They opened the Lions series with a loss before fighting back from 1-nil down to win the series 2-1.
After beating Argentina twice at home, they headed down under to complete the rest of the Rugby Championship but their title hopes unravelled with back-to-back losses to the Wallabies before a third loss to the All Blacks. During this stretch, they gave up the number one ranking briefly.
In the final round, they were able to arrest their losing streak by turning the tables on New Zealand to finish with a win. Heading to Europe they won their first two games against Wales and Scotland before a final loss to England at Twickenham.
They finished the season still holding World Rugby’s number one ranking, but were they the best team?
Were the Springboks the world’s best team in 2021?
NT: No, but they were one of the better sides. The losses to England and Australia would not make me comfortable in agreeing to that question.
I think they were a very good side and would be in the mix with New Zealand. I’d probably have to call it a dead-heat between New Zealand and South Africa despite the World Rugby Rankings.
FM: While the Springboks may have won the war against the Lions, they largely lost the battle against some of the best nations in the rugby world.
Two losses to Australia, and one to both New Zealand and England suggest that they aren’t still the world’s best team. In fact, not only were they not the best team this year, but you could mount an argument for why they weren’t even in the top five, with Ireland and France also impressing last month.
AM: No. After missing an entire year of test rugby in 2020, losses to the All Blacks, Wallabies and England have further blemished South Africa’s reign as world champions this year.
Instead, if you ignore the World Rugby rankings (which are a bit of a farce anyway), the team that continues to build and grow and looks the most threatening less than two years out from the next World Cup is France.
TV: Truth be told, there wasn’t any one team who really shone out consistently throughout the season. The All Blacks may have been the best throughout the early part of the year and easily topped the Rugby Championship ladder but struggled in the Northern Hemisphere.
It would be hard to award the ‘title’ of world’s best to the Springboks either, given their run of losses against Australia and New Zealand while Six Nations champions Wales didn’t exactly light the world on fire, even when they were winning throughout February and March.
JO: The Boks emerged from their self-imposed isolation in 2021 expecting that they would still be a world champion team. Overall they have had a very good season, but they have burned through a lot of goodwill from their World Cup win, and it will be interesting to see if they can maintain their place at the top.
MR: In a word no. They are a great squad that will be in any mix when there’s a knock out competition like the RWC but they have frailities that the Wallabies and others exposed effectively.
BS: They ended the year with World Rugby’s number one tag but they did not put in a convincing season, losing five tests and finishing with a win rate marginally above 60 per cent.
Just like the 2019 Rugby World Cup will always be South Africa’s, the 2021 Rugby Championship title will forever read New Zealand and the Springboks will always be third place finishers.
It’s all about titles and wins, which can never be removed. The number one ranking is one of the only things you can never keep forever and inevitably will be lost.
The Springboks only major silverware this year was the Lions series win, which was a struggle. After losing the first test they had to fight back to keep the series alive and they were minutes away from a drawn series before an aerial blunder gave them a chance to win the series.
In their only annual tournament, The Rugby Championship, they finished third, conceding the Nelson Mandela Plate to Australia while New Zealand retained the Freedom Cup and took home the Rugby Championship title. Having last won a truncated version of the tournament, they still haven’t won a full length version of it.
If you are the best team in the world, you win silverware, particularly the major tournaments you compete in. Only the blind believers in South Africa would put the 60 per cent Boks at the top of the rugby tree in 2021 as the world’s best team.
JK: You’re as good as your last game for me, so no. Couple that with their losses to Australia and New Zealand, and I feel I have a compelling case for my answer. The scariest team in world rugby as of every country’s final game is France.
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