CRAIG LEWIS looks back at some of the positives and negatives that the Springboks will take away from the 2018 season.
The Springboks’ disappointing 20-11 defeat to Wales last Saturday saw them end the year with a 50% win-loss record. In some respects, though, it’s a end result that rather aptly sums up a year of ups and down.
There have certainly been some encouraging signs during the course of the season, but there are also elements of the Boks’ game that they will know require fine-tuning as they head into a World Cup year. Here we take a look at three pros and cons from 2018.
1) Progress against the All Blacks
When the Springboks headed into their first clash against the All Blacks in September, they had just suffered back-to-back away defeats to Argentina and Australia.
It was widely expected that the Boks would be in for another hiding at the hands of the world champs, who they had not beaten in New Zealand since 2009.
Instead, that unwanted record would be banished to history as the Boks produced one of the performances of the year to claim a stunning 36-24 victory in Wellington.
Just as importantly, the Boks backed up that performance with a rousing display in the return fixture at Loftus, which saw them emphatically outplay New Zealand over the first hour of proceedings.
Unfortunately, a fourth-quarter capitulation saw the Boks slip to a two-point defeat, but the fact remains that over the two Tests against the All Blacks, the combined score was 66-66.
2) Selections that paid off
One of the most pleasing takeaways from the 2018 season has been the personal progress of Pieter-Steph du Toit, who has redefined himself as a blindside flank, where his performances have often been off the charts this year.
Besides this important development, Rassie Erasmus has also largely been rewarded by the overseas-based Boks he has recalled to Test action. In particular, Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux have provided answers in the key positions of scrumhalf and fullback.
Duane Vermeulen has added valuable experience and leadership, while Cheslin Kolbe has been one of the finds of the season.
Erasmus also had to essentially roll the dice on two young wingers, with the performances of Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi duly providing a big payoff.
3) Clarity over game plan
Although the Boks have battled with inconsistency in 2018, they have shown encouraging signs of re-establishing a strategic identity.
In many respects, the Springboks have returned to traditional strengths of a powerful set piece, robust defence and a strong kicking game.
It hasn’t always gone according to script, but there does appear to at least be a more clear-minded game plan that the Boks are looking to enforce.
Indeed, many of the Bok players have spoken at length about the technical work taking place behind the scenes that is empowering them to make key decisions, while instilling confidence in what they’re trying to achieve.
1) Teething problems over defensive system
There has been a fair bit of talk around the Boks’ aggressive high-line rush defence system, which aims to empower the players out wide to make big decisions.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach that will take time for the players – and particularly the young wingers – to become accustomed to, and on several occasions the Boks have been exposed in the wider channels.
The Springboks will know that patience is required, but that they also need to establish greater accuracy in their defensive decision-making as they build towards the World Cup.
2) Inconsistency and poor finishing
The Boks have sought to evolve their attacking game this year, and after scoring seven tries in the three-Test series against England, they racked up a total of 21 five-pointers during the course of the Rugby Championship.
On the recently concluded end-of-year tour, though, the Boks’ attack really only fired in fits and starts. While Erasmus’ charges are beginning to create ample opportunities, their finishing has often left a lot to be desired.
It was something that haunted them in their tour opener against England, and also in last Saturday’s Test against Wales. They will be fully aware that their ratio of turning opportunities into points will need to be improved in 2019.
3) Midfield yet to be settled
Although Erasmus appears to have a fairly clear idea of what his starting lineup is likely to be at next year’s World Cup, the midfield is one area where there may be a couple of question marks still hovering.
Damian de Allende does appear to have the inside lane to the No 12 jersey, but his impact has varied from game to game, while André Esterhuizen is still finding his way at Test level.
Although Lukhanyo Am is highly rated, injuries have unfortunately curtailed his Test involvement this year, while hard-working Jesse Kriel has provided the only real alternative.
With such limited time until the World Cup, the Boks will hope that these centres find some top form in Super Rugby, otherwise there could be a temptation to consider overseas-based options such as Frans Steyn or Jan Serfontein.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images