The Springboks have the ability and heart to overcome an underwhelming buildup and injuries to key players to defend their World Cup crown, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The Springboks are a World Cup team. Unlike the Proteas, who have gone into several Cricket World Cup tournaments as favourites only to crack under the pressure, the Boks tend to fly under the radar and then produce their best when it matters most.
With three titles in seven attempts, the Boks are statistically the most successful Rugby World Cup team, with the All Blacks’ three crowns having come from nine appearances.
The Springboks have never gone into a World Cup that they ended up winning as favourites.
In 1995, Kitch Christie’s men were tipped to lose their opening match against the world champion Wallabies at Newlands and exit the tournament at the quarter-final stage. In 2007, Jake White’s Boks finished last in the Tri-Nations and went to the global showpiece in France ranked fourth, and while the Boks won a shortened 2019 Rugby Championship, they were again ranked fourth going into the last World Cup in Japan and far from the finished product under Rassie Erasmus, who had only been appointed coach the year before.
So anyone writing off the Springboks’ 2023 World Cup chances based on their performances in the first four Tests of the year is making a big mistake. Not once did Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber field a first-choice XV, instead opting to mix and match.
In a World Cup year, the only results that matter are those at the World Cup, but that’s not to say the Springboks should ignore the warning signs from their earlier matches. They clearly need to address certain areas of their game if they are to win a fourth World Cup.
It is concerning that there was a repeat of what happened at Ellis Park last year in Auckland this year, with the Boks going into the match as favourites only to be blown away in the first quarter. The world champions lost the physical and aerial battles, which they usually dominate, and by the time they finally found their rhythm they’d left themselves with too much to do.
There’s also no hiding from the fact that the Boks were awful against Argentina at Ellis Park. They lacked Test-match intensity, were disjointed on attack, conceded too many penalties, and were sloppy at the ruck. But their defence was excellent and they were able to grind out an ugly win while down to 14 men, an experience that could prove useful should they find themselves in a similar situation at the World Cup.
And while the Boks disappointed in the first half of the World Cup warm-up Test in Buenos Aires, they played with more precision in the second to secure a morale-boosting win.
After the Springbok ‘B team’ beat the Wallabies at Loftus at the start of the Rugby Championship, all the talk was how well-positioned Erasmus’ men were ahead of the World Cup. When they named their match 23 for the All Blacks match, former England hooker Brian Moore tweeted: ‘If you’re thinking about whether your team could win the 2023 World Cup, take a look at this squad and ask if they could go toe to toe with the Boks for 80 minutes.’
Yes, that team has since lost outside centre Lukhanyo Am (knee injury) and lock Lood de Jager (heart condition), while first-choice flyhalf Handré Pollard – who missed all four Tests because of a calf injury – failed to recover in time for the World Cup. But the injury-hit Boks will still arrive in France with an experienced squad capable of winning the tournament. Inspirational captain Siya Kolisi will be there, having recovered from a knee injury, and his leadership will be vital.
The Boks will be more than happy to go into their big pool match against No 1-ranked Ireland, and a potential quarter-final against hosts France or a resurgent All Blacks team as underdogs.
History shows they produce their best when written off and their backs are against the wall. Hopefully, that will again be the case.