Rassie Erasmus should view the Rugby Championship as a final opportunity to prepare the Springboks for the all-important World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Top players and coaches will tell you that there’s no such thing as a meaningless Test match. The 2019 Rugby Championship tournament will matter, albeit in the context of the all-important World Cup to be staged in Japan later this year.
Fans should watch the Rugby Championship with a view to that global showpiece. It will be interesting to see how the respective coaches go about managing their squads and exactly how much they reveal in terms of their tactics.
Less should be read, however, into results and ultimately who lifts the trophy on 10 August.
History tells us that no team has ever won the Rugby Championship – which comprised three sides and was known as the Tri-Nations between 1996 and 2011 – as well as the World Cup in the same season.
New Zealand won the 1999, 2003 and 2007 instalments, yet Australia, England and South Africa went on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in the corresponding years. The Wallabies won truncated versions of the tournament in 2011 and 2015, but were outshone by the All Blacks in the World Cups staged in New Zealand and England.
The Boks will head into both the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup tournaments as underdogs. While the team enjoyed something of a revival under Erasmus in 2018, it only managed to win 50% of its games and finished the season at fifth in the World Rugby rankings.
The Boks did manage to end a nine-game drought in New Zealand, though, and may be encouraged to know that this season’s fixture against the All Blacks will be staged at the same venue in Wellington.
The Boks will begin their Rugby Championship campaign against the Wallabies. One would expect the Boks to prosper in the game staged at Ellis Park given that the Aussies haven’t won on the Highveld since 2010. The Test against the All Blacks in Wellington will be followed by a clash with Argentina in Salta.
The Pumas have improved a great deal since joining the tournament in 2012. They thumped the Boks by a record 13-point margin the last time the South Africans visited Argentina in 2018.
The Jaguares won the South African Super Rugby conference for the first time in 2019, and the bulk of that squad looks set to power the Pumas’ effort in the Rugby Championship and World Cup.
The draw is a favourable one in the sense that the Boks will face the Pumas in Argentina two weeks after fronting the All Blacks in New Zealand. Since the advent of the Rugby Championship – and ultimately the addition of Argentina – the Boks haven’t been done any favours by a schedule that has them travelling to Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand in the space of four weeks.
No other team has had to deal with such a challenging tour (in non-World Cup years). Many, including coaches and players involved with present and past Bok teams, believe that this has compromised South Africa’s quest for the Rugby Championship crown.
The Boks have won the Tri-Nations tournament three times, their last triumph coming in 2009. The Tri-Nations schedule alternated from year to year – with the Boks, for example, playing the All Blacks twice in South Africa and once in New Zealand the one year and twice in New Zealand and once in South Africa the next.
It’s believed that the format of the Rugby Championship will undergo a significant change in the next few years to allow for a fairer schedule.
MOMENTUM vs EXPERIMENTATION
The All Blacks experimented with several second- and third-choice players in certain matches played during the 2011 and 2015 tournaments. The move cost New Zealand a few results in the short term, but allowed the coaches to have another look at their options before the all-important World Cup.
The Boks employed a similar strategy in 2007. The top players were deployed in the home fixtures of the Tri-Nations. South Africa claimed a narrow win over Australia at Newlands – with a precocious Frans Steyn slotting two crucial drop goals – and pushed New Zealand close in the subsequent game in Durban.
Thereafter, the first-choice players remained in South Africa for a conditioning camp while the second-stringers toured Australasia for the away leg of the tournament. Later that year, a physically fit and mentally sharp Bok side went on to win the World Cup.
Erasmus may need to strike a similar balance in the coming months. On the one hand, the coach will be aware of the fact that his first-choice players haven’t played together since late November last year, and need game time as a combination. On the other, there is a need to develop depth in certain positions to ensure that the Boks don’t head to the World Cup with a dearth of options.
Erasmus stated at the start of the season that he has already selected 80% of his World Cup squad. Many of the 31 spots have already been filled, and yet the Rugby Championship will present a final chance for those on the fringes to stake a claim.
PSYCHOLOGICAL POINTS ON OFFER
Last year, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said that the Boks had regained their fearsome reputation – following the lean years of 2016 and 2017 – and that the New Zealand-South Africa rivalry was back. These comments were made after the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington and then pushed the Kiwis close in the subsequent Rugby Championship match in Pretoria.
How will it look, though, if the Boks suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship this season?
They were hammered 41-13 in Christchurch and 57-15 in Durban in 2016, and 57-0 in Albany in 2017. Surely they can’t afford another embarrassment of that magnitude on the eve of the 2019 World Cup.
The two rivals will meet at the World Cup in the Pool B opener in Yokohama on 21 September. A lot has already been said and written about this fixture – it’s being billed as the biggest clash of the preliminary stage – and the winner of the match will in all likelihood top the pool and secure an easier path through the playoffs.
A win or, at the very least, a combative performance against the All Blacks in Wellington should fill the Boks with confidence.
A loss, however, will further emphasise South Africa’s status as underdogs ahead of a showdown with the old enemy at the World Cup.
This article appeared in the current edition of Sports Club magazine
Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix