Rassie Erasmus’ meticulous planning and attention to detail allowed the Springboks to tick all of the relevant boxes across an important Rugby Championship campaign, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, to write off the All Blacks after one awful Rugby Championship campaign and to talk up the Boks as champions in waiting. I’m sure we’ll hear more about why the All Blacks are vulnerable and why the Boks are favourites in the lead-up to the World Cup pool meeting on 21 September in Yokohama.
What we do know for certain is that the Boks have a lot to celebrate. It’s not every day that South Africa wins a trophy, and you could see what it meant to the players in the wake of their title-clinching win in Salta.
There’s something bigger to celebrate, though, when you consider this team’s story over the past four years. They’re on the verge of regaining a reputation that they lost during the dark days of 2016 and 2017. They’re also within touching distance of third place in the World Rugby rankings.
In 2015, Heyneke Meyer and his Boks were lambasted after their third-place finish at the global tournament in England. South African fans didn’t know that darker times were ahead, and that by the beginning of 2018, the national side would rank as low as seventh in the World Rugby standings.
It’s taken a massive effort by the coaches and players over the past two years to get the team back to a point where it can compete with the best sides on the planet. The Rugby Championship title should be viewed as a sign of progress, and the likes of the All Blacks, England, Ireland and Wales will have noticed how far the Boks have come on defence and attack in a short space of time.
But, as their current ranking suggests, the Boks still have room to improve and grow. Erasmus himself made this point in the wake of the recent win, while stand-in skipper Duane Vermeulen described the victory as a stepping stone to greater success.
Most importantly, the Boks have finished the campaign with answers.
Erasmus’ decision to split his squad at the start of the tournament produced outstanding results. The ‘B’ side scored a bonus-point win against the Wallabies in Johannesburg and ensured that the Boks finished the round at the top of the standings. During that game, Erasmus got to see what overseas stars such as Rynhardt Elstadt, Frans Steyn, Cobus Reinach and Marcell Coetzee could offer. His gamble to back rookie Herschel Jantjies paid off handsomely.
Erasmus sent a group of ‘first-choice’ players to New Zealand a few days before the rest of the squad. As a result, most of the players who fronted the All Blacks in Wellington were fresh and up for a clash that was fiercely contested until the final minute.
The decision to stay in New Zealand ahead of the trip to Argentina was also made with the future in mind. Over a period of two weeks, the Boks had an opportunity to bond and prepare ahead of the World Cup. When they took the field in Salta, every player was clear about his role and there was no sign of complacency.
Erasmus was bold with his selections in Salta. Other coaches may have picked their strongest combination after considering that a trophy was on the line and that the Boks don’t have a good record overseas. Erasmus, however, continued to favour a balance between a side that could win and a side that could provide World Cup-related answers.
The Boks have been through a lot over the past four years. It would make for an incredible story if they were to win the World Cup in Japan. Whether they should be expected to do so is another matter.
There’s a fair expectation for the All Blacks to succeed, for Ireland – the best team on show in 2018 – to challenge strongly and for Wales to show why they deserve the No 1 ranking after such a strong Six Nations campaign. The Boks have ticked a lot of boxes but to saddle them with a World Cup favourites tag just doesn’t seem right, at least not at this stage.
Erasmus has had a clear plan from the outset and it’s been patent to see that the coaches and players are on the same page. The group has come through the Rugby Championship with answers as well as results, and could not have asked for a better build-up to what will be a challenging World Cup campaign.
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