Boks still finding their feet

A healthy dose of patience and perspective will be required when assessing the Springboks this season, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Extreme expectation follows the Springboks whenever they take to the pitch. This is nothing new. It’s the way it always has been, and always should be. But let’s not kid ourselves, this is a very green Springbok side – a team unequivocally still in transition.

It may be an unfortunate reality that some don’t want to accept, but there is more than enough reason to suggest that Argentina will in fact be favourites to emerge victorious in Salta this Saturday.

The Boks also simply cannot be expected to challenge the peerless All Blacks for supremacy this season, while it’s only really the Wallabies’ recent regression that should provide some hope for upcoming clashes with the Aussies.

As a South African rugby public, we should never accept second best from a Springbok side. Two world titles speak volumes for the fact that we can and should be challenging for top honours in world rugby.

But let’s also not be naive. The last time the Boks won the Tri-Nations title was in 2009. They have yet to lift the Rugby Championship title and failed to win a single game last season.

This past Saturday, only a late surge saved the Boks from suffering a fourth successive defeat in the southern hemisphere competition for the first time since 2011. Over the past 12 months, the Boks have also lost for the first time in South Africa to both Argentina and Ireland, while suffering a shock first-ever defeat to Japan.

And despite the Lions’ near-miss this season, the last time a South African side clinched the Super Rugby title was way back in 2010.

And then we come to the current crop of Springboks. Only five players selected in the starting lineup for last Saturday’s Test against Argentina had played more than 20 Tests. Only two players in the backline had more than 10 caps, with Damian de Allende (17) hardly boasting vast experience.

At Test level, the combinations in the back three, midfield, back row, front row and at halfback are all new.

So let’s not be defeatist, but let’s be realistic. Why should we expect this new-look side to casually and comprehensively hammer Argentina? Since joining the competition, the Pumas have grown immeasurably, and have featured in the knockout stage of the last three World Cups (twice in the semi-finals).

And as Allister Coetzee kept repeating last week, they are now a considerable force to be reckoned with in world rugby. Yet, there still seemed to be a prevailing sense of self-entitlement, shock and horror when the Boks failed to simply put the Pumas to the sword this past Saturday.

When perspective is put in place, it doesn’t really make sense. This is a Bok team at the start of a much-needed transition. There are new players and new coaches still finding their feet at Test level. Coetzee has not inherited a side filled with stalwarts heading towards their peak (as Peter de Villiers did for example).

Last week, Warren Whiteley also reiterated in Nelspruit that the Boks were still in the midst of identifying and establishing their own identity. He reminded the gathered reporters that at the Lions, this season’s success was only possible after a three-year period where a settled side was backed to establish a new team culture and brand of rugby that they wanted to play.

As a South African rugby public, do we have the patience to afford the Boks this sort of time frame to find their identity? It’s unlikely, and there are more than a few examples of previous coaches deviating from their original plans under the weight of the intense public pressure that follows each performance.

But when objectivity is put before passion and pride, surely we need to acknowledge that a talented and enthusiastic – but extremely inexperienced – Bok side still has a very long way to go before again being measured against the might of a side such as the All Blacks.

Let’s always hold the Springboks to the highest of standards, but let’s also be patient and realistic about what can genuinely be expected at this stage of a new journey.

Perspective, after all, could spare a lot of pain.

​Photo: AFP Photo

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Craig Lewis