The Springboks need to lose their underdog mentality, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
If the Springboks’ newfound ability to consistently push the All Blacks proves anything, it is that they still don’t have the consistency that eludes them between World Cups to the point that they have a strangely symmetrical record of winning it once every 12 years.
In an indication of how these clashes have played out in the clinch, to borrow a boxing phrase, the seven matches contested since October 2017 by the two heavyweights have been decided by two points on no fewer than five occasions.
The other two are a 16-16 draw in the 2019 Rugby Championship and that 23-13 win in the World Cup opener the same year.
Repeatedly giving the team regarded as the best in the world the hurry-up like that, as the Boks have happily taken to doing, is a record to be proud of. But it’s also a case in point as to why the world champions have always struggled to hold on to the feeling of being on top of the world.
Much as the rest of the free world would love to conveniently chalk the Boks’ failure to consistently hit the high notes of 2019 down to excuses, there are valid reasons for why they were sometimes dreadfully off colour during their 10 Test matches in the latest season to date.
The 20-month layoff due to Covid, the Covid outbreak in camp before the British & Irish Lions series, the emotional crash after winning a series which is contested once in 12 years, the debilitating effects of the bubble-life or even a little complacency after winning so much are all real hindrances to peak performance.
But the Boks’ biggest historical problem is an inability to play their best when they are not underdogs.
While the recent run against the All Blacks is praiseworthy because nobody else has that kind of record against them, every time the Boks play them, they are the underdogs, which goes a long way towards helping them play their best.
Contrast that with the four Rugby Championship games the Boks played against Argentina and Australia.
They struggled to put the South Americans away despite this being one of their weakest teams in a while and lost both games to the Wallabies when they were expected to win, proving for the umpteenth time that they’re still a team which plays to prove people wrong instead of proving themselves right.
Bok head coach Jacques Nienaber confirmed this in a roundabout way after losing the first Rugby Championship game against the All Blacks: “We’ve got an experienced side but we still have a lot to learn as a group in terms of our processes of being champions and getting to the point where New Zealand were winning 88 of 100 games.
“That’s a consistency we’re still striving to get into our game and we’ll have to do it quickly over the next couple of years.”
When the head coach position was passed to Nienaber because Rassie Erasmus was to become director of rugby after the World Cup victory, the point was to maintain the kind of continuity SA Rugby has always frittered away by getting rid of World Cup-winning coaches.
The bigger goal was to create a consistency of performance which made sure winning World Cups wasn’t something they did once in 12 years. To achieve that, it looks like the blooding of new players and an attack which has regressed need the most attention.
But the biggest change the Boks need is in their mentality, where their comfort zone is in being underdogs. It’s not fitting of world champions.