The Springbok coaches, as well as the fans, should be encouraged by the progress of the side in 2018, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Consider the conversations that were playing out in the pubs – both virtual and literal – three weeks ago. Most South Africans were in agreement that the Boks would do well to avoid a hiding in Wellington. Former Bok coach Nick Mallett said that the players could hold their heads up high if they lost to the All Blacks by 10 points or fewer.
Now, consider the mood in South Africa in the wake of the recent result at Loftus. Fans are lamenting a two-point loss to the No 1 side in the world.
It’s a sign of progress. Following a win against the All Blacks in Wellington – a result that ended a nine-year drought on New Zealand soil – the belief in Rassie Erasmus and his players started to grow. A couple of weeks on, and the expectation of the side to perform has swelled to the point where a narrow loss, even to one of the greatest sporting sides in history, is not treated as a victory. We’ve been given a reason to expect more.
When I sat down with Erasmus ahead of the Test season for an interview, he told me that the Boks could beat the All Blacks. He was adamant that he could turn things around if the right systems were implemented. He said that the South African players were as good as any on the world.
Here we are, six or seven months down the line, and everyone, including All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read, are claiming that the Boks are well and truly back.
Hansen expressed this sentiment in the buildup to the Test at Loftus. I bumped into a couple of the Bok coaches on the eve of the clash. They spoke about a New Zealand backlash, but there was no fear in the sense that a 50-point hiding may be in the offing. It was always going to be close.
Erasmus made the point after the game that South Africa are closing the gap. Two points or fewer have decided the last three clashes between these teams, and on that basis, the great rivalry has been restored.
Anyone who was at the game will provide further evidence to substantiate the argument. The tactical performance in the first 60 minutes was a hark back to the days of 2013 when the Boks dominated every other nation and pushed New Zealand close. On Saturday, the Boks put the All Blacks under pressure with their kicking game, and that is something that can be taken forward to the big matches at the 2019 World Cup.
There’s cause for celebration when one considers how poorly the Boks have performed over the past three seasons. Indeed, only three weeks ago Erasmus suggested his job as coach was on the line after losses to Argentina and Australia.
There’s also cause for perspective. The Boks won three of their six Rugby Championship Tests. They have room to improve, and must strike the right balance in approach when they tour Europe in November.
This year, we’ve seen the Bok attack rip the England and All Blacks defence to shreds. We’ve seen the Bok defence rattle opponents and withstand last-gasp assaults to secure important victories.
We’ve witnessed the return of key players such as Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux and Duane Vermeulen from abroad. We’ve seen a rookie like Aphiwe Dyantyi making an impact. Pieter-Steph du Toit and Handré Pollard have made the No 7 and 10 positions their own.
We’ve seen Siya Kolisi rise and rise in his role as captain. The Bok leadership group has been through some challenging periods that will serve them well in future.
As Erasmus pointed out following the sellouts in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, we’ve seen a renewed interest in the Boks. It feels good to know that the standards are rising once more, that the fans are starting to believe, and that South African rugby is moving in the right direction.
Photo: Kim Ludbrook/EPA