The structure and scheduling of the 2020 Test season will present opportunities as well as challenges for Jacques Nienaber’s Springbok team, writes JON CARDINELLI.
SA Rugby confirmed the venues for the Boks’ home matches earlier this week. To summarise, the Boks will play all three of the matches in the July Test series on the coast, and all three of their Rugby Championship Tests at altitude.
Each of these fixtures will present its own set of opportunities and challenges. The latter three will see the Boks taking their respective opponents out of their comfort zones.
BOK HOME FIXTURES IN 2020
vs Scotland, 4 July (Newlands, Cape Town)
vs Scotland, 11 July (Kings Park, Durban)
vs Georgia, 18 July (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
vs Argentina, 8 August (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
vs Australia, 19 September (Loftus, Pretoria)
vs New Zealand, 26 September (Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit)
There’s been a lot of talk about the British & Irish Lions tour in 2021, and about how the three-Test series will present the next big opportunity for a Bok side that’s won the World Cup and Rugby Championship. The Boks shouldn’t want for motivation in 2020, though, considering that the Freedom Cup – contested between South Africa and New Zealand over two games – and another Rugby Championship title will be up for grabs.
The first set of matches in July will give Nienaber a chance to gauge where his charges stand some eight months after the World Cup triumph in Japan. It will be interesting to see whether every player in the squad is immediately considered for selection, as some of the relevant European clubs may be reluctant to release their South African charges outside the official Test window.
One would expect the coaches to experiment over the course of the two matches against Scotland and in the one-off against Georgia. At the same time, there will be pressure on the world champs to win, given they will be playing their first set of matches in South Africa since claiming the Webb Ellis Cup.
The first game at Newlands will be doubly important given that it will mark the last match at the oldest Test ground in the southern hemisphere. The Stormers and Boks will play all further matches at the Cape Town Stadium.
Jacques Nienaber’s men will also play their first home Test against Georgia in PE.
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) February 4, 2020
The structure of the Rugby Championship tournament looks set to change in the coming years. For now, the Boks will have to suck it up and accept the same gruelling travel schedule that’s been in place since the southern hemisphere showpiece expanded from three teams to four in 2012.
Rassie Erasmus picked two separate teams to combat the travel challenges in last year’s truncated tournament. It remains to be seen if Nienaber – who will continue to work closely with Erasmus – will follow suit.
What 2019 showed us, though, is that there is merit in sending a group of players overseas ahead of the rest of the squad to ensure that the core has adequate time to adjust to local conditions. One would expect Nienaber to juggle his squad accordingly over the two legs (home then away) against Argentina. If the Boks win three of their first four matches, and if the workload is spread evenly and the group is relatively fresh ahead of the final two matches, South Africa should fancy their chances of claiming another Rugby Championship title.
The Boks have an excellent record against the Wallabies on the highveld and at Loftus Versfeld in particular. Even when they were at their worst in 2016, the Boks managed to eke out of a win against Australia at this venue.
Some eyebrows were raised when it was announced that the Boks will host the All Blacks at the Mbombela Stadium rather than at Ellis Park. The latter is the best venue in South Africa and in many respects the best choice to host what could be a tournament decider between two old rivals.
That said, the All Blacks have enjoyed plenty of success against the Boks at Ellis Park over the past 15 or so years. It will not give them an advantage against the New Zealanders. Perhaps the decision to move this fixture to the lowveld will help the Boks’ cause.
World Rugby recently announced that it will stage the draw for the 2023 World Cup after the November Tests in 2020. The Boks will be looking to retain their No 1 ranking in the lead-up to their draw or at the very least remain in the top four.
The teams in ‘Band 1’ will avoid each other during the group stages of the 2023 World Cup. If that draw took place today, the Boks would avoid New Zealand (ranked second), England (third) and Wales (fourth).
The upshot is that every result will count in 2020. A successful Rugby Championship campaign and tour of Europe will ensure that the Boks retain their ranking. Failure on one or both of those fronts, of course, will see them slipping down the ladder.
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