The Springboks have ticked several boxes since winning the 2019 World Cup. While Covid-19 has cast a long shadow over South Africa – and compromised coach Jacques Nienaber’s best-laid plans – the group has found a way to win matches as well as strengthen its player base.
While some continue to attack a perceived lack of ambition, others in the know acknowledge that the Boks went into the three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions woefully undercooked. Despite an outbreak of coronavirus in the camp and a severe lack of preparation, South Africa realised their short-term objective by winning that series 2-1.
South Africa’s intent and ambition were apparent across the two Rugby Championship fixtures against Argentina, which were staged immediately after the Lions series. The Boks won both matches in Gqeberha and claimed nine out of a possible 10 points in the process. More importantly, Nienaber gave a host of fringe players opportunities with the future in mind and experimented with different attacking approaches with mixed success.
Make no mistake, they are building towards something bigger and should be in a position to unleash a more polished and potent game plan when they clash against the All Blacks for the 100th time on September 25.
The Boks have won a Rugby Championship, a World Cup and a Lions series – and have proved that they are worthy of their place at the top of the World Rugby rankings. But make no mistake, they are building towards something bigger and should be in a position to unleash a more polished and potent game plan when they clash against the All Blacks for the 100th time on September 25.
This Bok team are only going to grow stronger over time. Given the noise coming out of New Zealand in recent months, as well as South Africa’s unconvincing record against the All Blacks, Nienaber’s charges will be desperate to prove a point.
The All Blacks’ dominance of the international game between 2010 and 2017 – as well as their stranglehold over the Springboks both home and away – is well documented. However, 2018 represented a watershed, with the All Blacks losing their hold on the No 1 ranking and the Boks reverting to their traditional strengths under coach Rassie Erasmus. It’s important to make this distinction when running the rule over the rivalry in more recent times.
The All Blacks won 17 out of 21 Tests against the Boks between 2010 and 2019. They averaged 30 points and four tries per match against their traditional foes during that period. They conceded an average of 17 points and two tries per game. Those numbers tell a story about the New Zealanders’ dominance over a decade, but they don’t explain how much things have changed over the past four years.
It should be noted that although the Boks suffered a series of humiliating defeats by the All Blacks in 2016 and 2017, the points and tries conceded in those losses have seriously impacted the overall stats. The 57-15 defeat in Durban in 2016 and the 57-0 loss in Albany remain South Africa’s worst-ever home and away results.
Draw a line under the 2017 season and judge the teams on their last four meetings, however, and a different picture emerges. To paraphrase former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who made an emphatic declaration after the 2018 Rugby Championship, the rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand is well and truly back.
The Boks didn’t win any major trophies in the 2018 season, but they did send a message. While they based their approach on a strong set-piece and kicking game, they also showed their attacking prowess as well as their ability to chase a game.
Over the past four years, New Zealand have won two, South Africa one, and there has been one draw. The All Blacks have averaged 26 points and three tries per game, while the Boks have averaged 24 and two.
The Boks didn’t win any major trophies in the 2018 season, but they did send a message. While they based their approach on a strong set-piece and kicking game, and they invested heavily in Nienaber’s defensive system, they also showed their attacking prowess as well as their ability to chase a game.
The Boks trailed England 24-3 after 16 minutes in the first Test of the three-match series against England in June 2018. The hosts hit back to score five tries and win 42-39.
Later that year, the Boks scored a record five tries and 36 points in a landmark win against the All Blacks in Wellington – their first victory on New Zealand soil in nine years.
The rugby world’s respect for the Boks grew over the next 12 months. The All Blacks beat the Boks 23-13 in the opening round of the 2019 World Cup, and yet many continued to believe that the two heavyweights would meet in the decider.
“See you boys in the final,” one New Zealand rugby writer told a couple of despondent South African journalists after the All Blacks’ superior display at the International Stadium Yokohama. My Kiwi colleague assured us that the rejuvenated Boks were on a par with the All Blacks and that they deserved to progress to the championship game.
Since the Boks won the World Cup, however, there have been doubts about their claim to the No 1 ranking. In a sense, one can understand why so many people are unwilling to entertain the idea that South Africa are currently better than the All Blacks. These doubts should have nothing to do with the team’s playing style and everything to do with numbers in the context of the rivalry.
To be fair to the Boks, they are all aware of the gap between themselves and the All Blacks.
When I sat down with Nienaber at the start of the 2020 season, he waxed lyrical about the team’s ambitions to develop a strong player base as well as his plans to build towards the Lions series in 2021 and the next World Cup in 2023. The Boks coach also went out of his way to speak about the New Zealand-South Africa rivalry and his determination to lift the Freedom Cup.
Much like the Bledisloe Cup, this trophy is awarded to the team that wins the majority of matches played between New Zealand and South Africa over the course of the Rugby Championship (previously the Tri-Nations). The Boks beat the All Blacks three times in a single season back in 2009, and added the Freedom Cup to their array of titles.
The Boks boast plenty of silverware at present, but they do not boast the trophy that signifies an edge over their traditional rivals… it’s fair to say that this group’s window to win the Freedom Cup may be closing.
Since then, the All Blacks have dominated this series within a series and retained the Freedom Cup for 11 years. The only time the Boks threatened to reclaim the trophy was in 2018, when South Africa won the first match in Wellington and then gave up a big lead in the follow-up in Pretoria to lose by two points.
The Boks boast plenty of silverware at present, but they do not boast the trophy that signifies an edge over their traditional rivals. It remains to be seen whether the current coaches and many of the senior players will push on beyond 2023, and it’s fair to say that this group’s window to win the Freedom Cup may be closing.
Can the Boks win the Freedom Cup in 2021? It’s a complicated question given the hurdles they will have to clear over the next few weeks. On the other hand, one or – whisper it gently – two away wins against the All Blacks will be easier to achieve in the present circumstances, with all fixtures moving to Australia due to the Covid-19 situation in New Zealand.
Can the Boks capitalise on this opportunity? The All Blacks will be desperate to prove a point given what transpired in the latter stages of the 2019 World Cup. But the fact that these two matches will be staged in Townsville and on the Gold Coast and not at Forsyth Barr and Eden Park in New Zealand should not be dismissed as insignificant.
The Boks will undergo another challenge when they travel to Australia to quarantine for two weeks. Thereafter, Nienaber will have to manage his squad carefully over a four-week period where his team will play four back-to-back Tests.
Nienaber may be tempted to cotton-wool his stars for the bigger matches against New Zealand, Tests that could determine the outcome of the Rugby Championship as well as the mini-series that is the Freedom Cup.
On the other hand, the Boks could take a step forward if they beat the Wallabies and end their eight-year drought in Australia – and they will gather some valuable Rugby Championship points in the process. Returning stars such as No8 Duane Vermeulen, who missed the Lions Tests due to a serious ankle injury, as well as scrum-half Faf de Klerk will need game-time before the first-choice side meet the All Blacks.
The Lions series is done and dusted. The 2023 World Cup is still two years away. While Nienaber and the Bok coaches continue to tick boxes with regards to player development, they are all too aware of the importance of results leading up to the next global tournament, and indeed the importance of several big wins against the All Blacks.
Everything is building towards the two clashes between the Springboks and All Blacks in Queensland. The results of those matches will echo into the 2022 season, and will surely preface the story of the 2023 World Cup.
More stories from Jon Cardinelli
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