The Springboks can’t talk of closing gap on the All Blacks until they consistently set similar standards to the All Blacks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
The obsession with the World Cup has allowed for a failure that ordinarily would not be glossed over or excused. Every time the Boks lose to New Zealand, the supporter response is that the only match that matters is the one played at the World Cup.
Why then invest energy and emotion in the results between World Cups if the defeats were that easily dismissed? Why also then celebrate with such euphoria when the Springboks actually beat the All Blacks every sixth Test?
The All Blacks have won 45, drawn two and lost two matches since the opening World Cup win against Tonga. They have won three Rugby Championships and beaten South Africa two out of three times at altitude, with their only defeat coming through Pat Lambie’s 79th-minute penalty.
The Springboks, of the chasing pack, are the closest to beating the All Blacks. But here’s the kicker: beating the All Blacks in a match does not mean the gap has been closed on the All Blacks as the world’s best team.
And the winning or losing of the World Cup won’t also be the only determining factor in who leads world rugby.
The World Cup is a one-off tournament, but it should not mean the Rugby Championship, the Six Nations and every other Test series or Grand Slam tour is now dismissed has having little meaning.
There are four teams with a very good chance of winning the World Cup. South Africa and New Zealand are always going to be among that quartet. But to call our rugby a leader is to lead when the expectation is that of a leader.
The Boks fronted for England. It was typical ‘wounded Bok’, ‘backs to the wall’ type of stuff. The Boks were immense in the collisions at Twickenham.
Mentally, they simply weren’t in the same frame against Italy.
It was a similar situation when they beat the All Blacks and simply didn’t arrive for the challenge of the Irish.
New Zealand fronted South Africa and hammered them when the Rugby Championship had already been won. They then had to back that up with beating Australia, despite having won the Bledisloe Cup.
They talk about standards and about being true to their standards. They don’t talk about World Cup preparation and they never compare their lack of performance as being acceptable because of South Africa’s failure to produce consistency.
Too often criticism of the Boks is explained through a comparison to the All Blacks. It masks too many things and highlights enough insecurity to doubt the ability of the Springboks to lead instead of being an occasional leader.
The Boks are good enough, in a one-off, to beat New Zealand. So are England. So are France. So potentially are Australia and Ireland. Any team can lose a match a year.
But winning one in six is not closing the gap on the All Blacks. It merely reinforces that there is no outright favourite for a play-off tournament.
The Boks, when assessed for consistency, are a poor second to New Zealand in every aspect.
Winning the occasional match against the All Blacks at Ellis Park isn’t evolution or growth. Springbok teams have produced this kind of result throughout history.
What will determine the strength and standing of the Boks is an ability to flourish when expectation demands a performance worthy of the hype.
The Boks were labelled the greatest Bok team in the last 20 years in the buildup to the Irish Test. A team that hadn’t won the Rugby Championship in three attempts and had lost two at home in three against the All Blacks can’t claim anything but being part of the chasing pack.
It was an insult to the 1995 and 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok teams. It was also an insult to the Boks of 1997 and 1998 that won 17 consecutive matches.
The Boks, with minimal changes from the Twickenham match, were rightly expected to make a statement against a team that had won only once in the past 15 months.
It simply wasn’t good enough because claims to greatness should be in how the crown is worn and not by virtue of the pursuit.
Mental conditioning means delivering when it is expected.
The Boks, unfortunately, have stumbled every time in the past three years when there has been an expectation of something special.
The Boks talk of closing the gap and talk of how good they believe they are and can be. But their performance over the duration of a Test season doesn't support this view.
Winning the World Cup means being called the world champions for four years. But losing two matches in 49 is what makes a team the undisputed world’s best.
South Africa’s challenge has to be to back up the hype each week and not find an extra arm and a leg every second week when stung by criticism of mediocrity.
New Zealand, in the past four years, have set the standard through consistent performance, Test after Test.
South Africa talk of similar standards but their performance is not as impressive as their press conference talk.
There is goodwill towards the Boks and there is wonderful belief in this squad. But there are also too many concessions made to a team that potentially should be the equal of New Zealand against all comers, but in the past four years haven’t earned the right, through performance, to deserve such plaudits.
Springbok captain Jean de Villiers said the Test against Italy would be about quality of performance and not the result.
He asked the team to be judged on the standard of play and not the scoreline and he got another reminder as to why the Boks in the past four years have chased a crown they always talk of being good enough to wear with consistency.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images