The defeat in Dublin was the reality check all of South African rugby needed when it comes to the Springboks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
A World Cup was once won at Ellis Park, way back in 1995. And until South Africa again hosts the global showpiece and Ellis Park is pencilled in as the venue for a final, whatever happens in Test matches at Ellis Park won’t have any bearing on the winning of World Cups elsewhere.
The World Cup is a tournament within a rugby calendar year. It's a seven-week exercise and the aim is to peak within those seven weeks.
It helps to arrive at a World Cup with a winning habit and with the players knowing how it feels to win, both comfortably and in adversity.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, in his first three years, avoided all talk of World Cups. He didn’t speak of a four-year plan or of sacrificing Tests in the name of World Cup planning. He also didn’t experiment at Test level, all in the name of a successful World Cup.
Meyer spoke of a winning habit and of winning Tests. The obsession with the All Blacks, aside, he mostly got it right. The Boks won consistently at home and regularly away from home, even if the wins on the road were fashioned more through grit than anything grandiose.
But all perspective seemed to go when the Boks finally beat the All Blacks at Ellis Park a month ago. Pat Lambie kicked a 79th-minute penalty from 55m and the Boks won by two points. Had he missed or had the penalty not been awarded then the Boks would have lost and the buildup to the northern hemisphere tour would certainly not have been packaged with pleasantries and plaudits.
What happened in Dublin has been a night in the making all year.
The Boks, in Argentina, trailed by 12 points and should have been put away. Somehow they conjured up enough points to win and the Pumas did enough to help them in the final quarter.
Wales led the Boks 30-17 with 15 minutes to go and again the Boks produced a great escape. Wales, like Argentina, were as charitable in their implosion.
The Boks have staggered at times in 2014 but in Dublin they were knocked out. This defeat was emphatic but it doesn’t mean the Boks are no longer World Cup contenders.
Victory, in the last minute against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, also didn’t translate to them being World Cup winners.
This month of rugby in the northern hemisphere is like a mini-World Cup because all the world’s best teams are playing each other. But it's not a dress rehearsal to the World Cup. It's not play-off rugby and the loser doesn’t have to take the next flight home.
The All Blacks management were vocal in dulling the senses of those who felt New Zealand’s win against England at Twickenham was a dry run for the World Cup final a year from now.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said it was presumptuous for anyone to assume New Zealand and England would actually be in the final. He felt that to be an insult to some very good rugby teams, whose players were capable of winning the World Cup.
There were five or six title contenders, said Hansen. And New Zealand and England were just two of those six. He said he cherished the win at Twickenham for it being a Test win. It was, he said, nothing more and nothing less.
McCaw, playing his 135th Test and winning for yet another time at Twickenham, also savoured the win and dismissed the relevance of what it meant to the World Cup. McCaw said knockout play-off rugby defined the World Cup and that in any other international tournament or tour, a team could still lose a Test and complete a series victory.
Nothing but the World Cup compared to the World Cup.
The weekend showed the different playing demands in the northern hemisphere. Many southern hemisphere stars have struggled to transfer the potency of home form on the road.
The Boks, in Dublin, were a case in point. The players, individually, are better than what was on show at the Aviva Stadium. But the Aviva Stadium was a reminder of how quickly it can all go wrong, just like Lambie’s 79th-minute penalty at Ellis Park allowed for a fleeting moment of euphoria.
The Boks, in beating the All Blacks at Ellis Park, did not become the world’s best team overnight. And neither did they become the world’s worst team after the embarrassment of Dublin.
Each week is a different Test and the aim is to win each Test.
This month is not a dress rehearsal for the 2015 World Cup. Meyer must not fall into a trap he has, up until now, avoided and confuse the tour with the challenge of a World Cup 11 months from now.
His Boks were underdone in Dublin. They were short a match and they also for the first time seemed to indulge and delight in their own press.
They were arrogant in their approach and took a beating. They didn’t earn the right to win and played with the assumption they’d win.
London will be different, in approach and hopefully also in result.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images