Four wins – including a rare victory in Australasia – would mark the Springboks’ 2018 Rugby Championship campaign as exceptional, writes JON CARDINELLI.
THE TOURNAMENT THAT MATTERS
The Springboks have a terrific record against northern hemisphere sides in South Africa. The recent 2-1 series victory over England was a confidence booster in the context of the past 12 months. It was not, however, anything out of the ordinary when one considers the bigger picture.
The success of the Boks’ season has hinged on their results in the Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship – and the World Cup, every four years – since the dawn of the professional era. We remember the great Bok teams of 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2009 because of their triumphs in the aforementioned tournaments. We’re inclined to forget that the Boks failed to impress when they toured the northern hemisphere at the end of 2004 and 2009.
What would represent a successful Rugby Championship campaign at this point? The Boks won two out of six matches in 2016, and two again in 2017. If we’re setting the bar low, we could say that three wins in 2018 would signify progress.
The Boks haven’t beaten the Wallabies in Australia since 2013, or the All Blacks in New Zealand since 2009. They haven’t won three or more matches in a campaign since 2014. That latter tournament witnessed the Boks’ most recent victory against the All Blacks.
This Bok team will set itself apart – from the 2015, 2016 and 2017 sides, at least – if it ticks any of the aforementioned boxes over the next couple of months. While there’s no doubt that performances in this tournament will shape the perceptions about the season, Rassie Erasmus should also be mindful about how the Rugby Championship results will impact on the team’s overall 2018 win record.
RESULTS WILL SIGNIFY PROGRESS
The Boks finished their June international schedule with two wins and two losses. If they replicate the results of last season from here – that is two wins in the Rugby Championship and two victories on the subsequent four-Test tour of Europe – they will end 2018 with a 43% win record.
For those who have forgotten, Allister Coetzee’s charges won 33% of their Tests in 2016. They were better in 2017, although an overall win record of 54% is nothing to shout about, and is below South Africa’s historical average of 62%.
The Boks shouldn’t be content with a two-from-six return in the 2018 Rugby Championship, nor a 43% overall win record for the season. It’s plain to see how this kind of return would represent a step backwards for South African rugby.
So how are they going to finish the season on the front foot? It all starts with the first two matches of the Rugby Championship campaign. The Boks will play Argentina twice; first in Durban on 18 August and then in Mendoza a week later.
The Boks have to win both of these games comfortably to give themselves a chance of finishing second in the standings. That finish would ensure that they take some momentum and confidence into the four-Test tour to Europe, and into a 2019 season that will climax with the World Cup in Japan.
RASSIE’S THREE PRIORITIES
When the squad came together in Stellenbosch this past week, Erasmus reiterated his three primary goals. The Bok coach has a mandate to win Test matches, transform the national side and develop a squad that can challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup next year.
Erasmus ticked those boxes across the June internationals. The Bok coach blooded 16 new players across the four Tests. Siya Kolisi became the first black African Test captain, while as many as six black Africans started in the first two Tests against England.
Two wins from four games is not an outstanding return, but one has to remember how the extensive travel demands compromised the Boks ahead of the clash against Wales in the USA, and how the drive to develop the squad led to some experimentation in the third game against England.
Erasmus has promised further experimentation in the Rugby Championship. The challenges of the Boks’ travel schedule in this tournament are well documented.
All that said, Erasmus and his charges cannot use development, transformation targets and travel fatigue as excuses for another poor Rugby Championship campaign.
It may feel as if the mental mountain is higher than ever before, though. The Boks have won twice in Australasia over the past eight seasons. The 2018 Super Rugby results in this part of the world – 14 losses in 16 matches by South African teams – hardly suggest that the Boks are on the verge of a drought-breaking victory.
PUMAS A DIFFERENT BEAST
In the past, one would have expected the Boks to begin their campaign with two convincing wins against Argentina. A lot has changed over the past year, though.
South Africa’s Super Rugby sides lost all four matches in Argentina this season. The appointment of Mario Ledesma as Pumas coach, following his outstanding work with the Jaguares, suggests that Argentina will be tougher to beat and that the Boks will have to fight tooth and nail to prevail.
And prevail they must. Two wins against Argentina would represent a good start for the Boks. A win against Australia in South Africa would be par in the context of the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 campaigns.
One victory in Australasia, however, would mark the 2018 season as an exceptional one for the Boks, and give them reason to dream big ahead of 2019.
Photo: Deryck Foster/BackpagePix