South African teams need to start beating their New Zealand counterparts on a regular basis for the Springboks to feature in the World Cup-contender conversation, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The 2017 Six Nations lived up to the pre-season hype. England stormed to a second-consecutive title and equalled the tier-one Test record for consecutive wins in the process. Eddie Jones’ side fell short, however, of claiming that record outright when they met an inspired Ireland side on a wet night in Dublin.
The 2015 World Cup – a tournament that saw England bowing out in the first round and zero northern hemisphere sides progressing beyond the quarter-finals – is a distant memory. England have proved themselves as a world force, if not a challenger to the All Blacks' supremacy. Ireland have shown that they deserve to be taken seriously following big wins against South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England over the past 12 months.
It’s a great situation for rugby, and every person who believes themselves to be a fan of the sport should be watching the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand with keen interest. The best of the north versus the kings of the world in a three-Test series. It won’t get any better than that in 2017.
In terms of the World Cup-contender conversation. England should get stronger in the lead up to the global tournament in 2019. Ireland clearly know how to bring giants like the All Blacks and England to their knees, and should be taken seriously as contenders ahead of the showpiece in Japan.
This week, World Rugby will confirm the rankings that will in turn influence the draw for the next World Cup. The draw will take place on 10 May in Kyodo, Japan, and what we know is that the All Blacks, England, Australia, and Ireland will avoid each other in the pool stage of the 2019 tournament. The Boks, who lost eight of their 12 Tests in 2016 and slipped to seventh in the rankings as a result, will be at the mercy of the draw.
The worse-case scenario will see the Boks drawn alongside top-ranked sides in band one (the All Blacks), and band three (Argentina). That statement is made based on current rankings. In terms of form, the Boks haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 2014, and have lost two of their last five Tests against Argentina.
The best-case scenario – again based on rankings – would see South Africa in a World Cup pool with the worst-ranked sides in band one (Ireland) and band three (Italy). One also needs to consider that the Boks may play a Pacific Island team like Samoa, a side that relishes a physical contest. Pool of Death indeed.
Since featuring in their first World Cup in 1995, the Boks have never failed to qualify for the playoffs. In 2019, however, the Boks may be hard-pressed to make it through the first round.
Allister Coetzee’s side will have everything to prove in the coming season. More than one coach and player has said that 2017 is about regaining respect. The Boks have much to do if they’re going to restore a physical aura that was the envy of all teams at one stage, even the All Blacks.
Of course, the performances of the South African sides during the Super Rugby tournament could be used as a measure of progress. All eyes will be on teams – read the Bulls, Stormers and Cheetahs – competing against the trend-setting New Zealand sides. It's in the Kiwi-South African clashes where local teams will have the chance to show whether they have caught up or fallen further behind New Zealand’s best.
The Lions and Sharks benefited from playing against the New Zealand sides in 2016 in the sense that these clashes forced them to lift their standards. The Lions won four of their eight games against Kiwi opposition (a record that included a loss in the final) while the Sharks won two of their six clashes. The Stormers were thumped 60-21 by the Chiefs in their only game against a New Zealand side. Overall, the record of six wins in 20 matches (the Kings lost all five such games) was cause for concern.
The South African sides need to show signs of progress in 2017. That said, can the Bulls, Stormers and Cheetahs really improve on last year’s record against New Zealand opposition?
The Bulls have started poorly, losing two of their first three matches. They were unconvincing in their win against the lowly Sunwolves in Pretoria, and there’s every reason to believe that they will struggle on the upcoming tour to New Zealand.
South African players need to build up some momentum and confidence ahead of a crucial 2017 Test season. Looking further down the line, the Boks have to start knocking over the better Test nations in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Yet the reality is that South African rugby standards have dropped to the point where the Bulls – the most successful South African team in Super Rugby history – are now expected to lose to the fourth-ranked side in New Zealand (the Blues). The Boks may battle to beat France, Argentina and Italy later this year, let alone real World Cup-contenders such as the All Blacks and Ireland.
The players face a long fight for respect. A lot needs to happen before the Boks can be talked about as favourites to emerge from a difficult World Cup pool. At this point, they don’t warrant mentioning in the global title conversation.
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