The Springboks will need to be as mentally strong as they are physically prepared, in order to be competitive against the British & Irish Lions, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Just a few days remain until the Boks return to international action in the first of two warm-up games against Georgia ahead of the three-Test Lions series.
At this point, it’s impossible to know just how quickly the Springboks will be able to transition back into the well-oiled machine which was operating at optimum levels by the time the World Cup final arrived on 2 November 2019.
But let’s digress for a second, and for reasons that will be explained.
Just recently I couldn’t resist rewatching the entire five episodes of the Springboks’ popular World Cup-winning documentary ‘Chasing the Sun’, and it was no less inspiring at the third viewing.
It also offered a fascinating reminder of how Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were able to take the team from the depths of uncertainty at the start of 2018, and transformed them into all-conquering world champions by the end of 2019.
The process wasn’t seamless. In 2018, the Springboks only achieved a 50% win ratio, but what resonated when rewatching the World Cup-winning documentary was just how the players were empowered with knowledge and tactical insight to regain belief in their ability to progress into a formidable force once again.
When the Boks overturned a 21-point deficit to overcome England on 9 June 2018, that belief first began to take hold. It grew exponentially when South Africa succeeded in the grand plan of beating the All Blacks in New Zealand later that year, and skyrocketed when they followed that up with a draw in the return fixture in Wellington a year later.
The Springboks then ended a 10-year drought by clinching the Rugby Championship trophy prior to the World Cup, and it all served to reinforce subliminal belief that they were being led in the right direction.
Of course, that story culminated in lifting the Webb Ellis trophy, but that was just the high point of what was a two-year journey.
The Boks will now benefit from player continuity, but there are certain elements of their preparations for the Lions series that will have required the national side to start from scratch after nearly two years of international inactivity.
But what some of the behind-the-scenes footage from the World Cup journey revealed is just how effective the Bok coaches were in feeding players with both practical and motivational messages in the team camp.
Erasmus, like many all-time great coaches from various sports codes, has the ability to push the right buttons of his players through rousing team speeches and identifying the key motivational trigger points.
As former conditioning guru Aled Walters described in the documentary, what makes Erasmus special is his ability to “pre-empt things incredibly well”, particularly when finding reasons to make things “personal”, which generally work as a motivator for all South Africans.
For the past few months, the Boks have been quietly going about their business in alignment and training camps, and you can only imagine the sort of messaging that is being driven home behind closed doors.
Some have already written the Springboks off on the basis of their absence from international rugby, but it’s unlikely that the team motto of ‘Let the main thing stay the main thing’ would have changed.
There have been very few big or bold statements that have been coming out of the Bok camp. They have chosen a team base away from any bright lights, and their focus is very much internal. It’s about finding rhythm back on the training field, while also driving home the off-field messages to remind the Springboks of who they are, and what they can still achieve.
What the Bok coaches did so well during the World Cup journey was to analyse and identify the ‘soul’ of the opposition. To some extent that will still be the case with the British & Irish Lions, but there is also a lot that will be impossible to predict as four nations come together to form one new-look team.
One can only wonder whether the focus therefore hasn’t rather shifted to introspection and reminding the players of what the Springboks’ ‘soul’ is all about, and how to impose that on the opposition.
Perhaps there will also be reminders fed to the players about the challenges that have been endured over the past 18 months, and particularly as South Africa enters the third wave of the pandemic, and how the Boks have the ability to once again inspire hope and a happy distraction.
However, in order to be successful on the field, the Springboks will need to believe they are well equipped enough to not only compete with, but to beat the Lions.
It will make both the physical and mental preparations equally important. But as the ‘Chasing the Sun’ documentary reveals: South Africans should never be written off.