• RWC winners are raising the bar

    The majority of South Africa’s World Cup winners have continued to dazzle and inspire since rejoining their respective clubs in South Africa, Europe and Japan, writes JON CARDINELLI.

    Will the Boks crack on in 2020? Will the 33 World Cup winners – who have already achieved more than most do over an entire career – keep pushing themselves to attain a higher level of athleticism and skill?

    Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have been addressing these questions since the team won the Rugby Championship last July. The Boks went on to win the World Cup in Japan and, in the immediate aftermath of that final victory, Erasmus spoke about pushing on and winning consistently.

    Even then, the coaches and the players were talking up the importance of the next Rugby Championship campaign as well as the next big challenge against the British & Irish Lions in 2021.

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    I had the opportunity to ask the new coach about these goals – and indeed, his realistic expectations of the players following a season of unprecedented success – in a wide-ranging interview for SA Rugby magazine.

    Nienaber gave me the impression that he and Erasmus – who will continue to work closely with the national side – will monitor the players’ attitude as much as their physical prowess in the lead-up to the 2020 Test season. The Boks will play Scotland (twice) and Georgia at home this July.

    ‘Look, you’ve got to be honest and realise that a lot of players view winning the World Cup as the ultimate,’ Nienaber said. ‘They’ve realised that dream – and there’s nothing wrong with that. For some golfers it will be enough just to win one Major.

    ‘Others want more. I would hope that most if not all the players who featured in Japan last year are in the latter category. I personally believe that we as a unit are destined for more.

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    ‘We will only know how much they want it, though, when we see them play Super Rugby or when they play the first few Tests later this year.

    ‘Talking about it is easy. I can make a lot of strong statements like “We’re not done yet!” but those are just words. My actions and how I plan will reveal how serious I am about this goal. The same applies for the player.’

    Many of the players who started for the Boks last season are performing for their respective clubs in Europe and Japan. The South Africa-based Boks have delivered some stirring showings over the first three rounds of the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament.

    There’s no room for complacency. I’ve spoken to a number of Boks since that unforgettable night in Yokohama, and every one of them – regardless of their age or experience at this level – has expressed a desire to be part of the team that lines up against the Lions in 2021.

    Nienaber has demanded that these players make their biggest statement on the field of play. The early signs are that most are serious about taking things further in the coming years. Indeed, some like Bongi Mbonambi have already paid a heavy price for putting their bodies on the line from the outset.

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    At the same time, it’s been encouraging to hear Erasmus and Nienaber tempering expectations ahead of what may be a challenging season. While the new coach will demand the right attitude from day one, he realises that it may be some time before key individuals are operating at maximum efficiency.

    ‘I don’t think that any player will hit the same form we witnessed in the latter stages of the World Cup,’ said Nienaber. ‘It took each player 20 weeks in our system to reach that level. Nobody will start at zero, though, and I would hope that each player takes fewer than 20 weeks to get back to his World Cup form.’

    At the time of the interview, Nienaber rattled off a list of players who are showing the necessary hunger while on duty for their overseas clubs. After witnessing the recent Super Rugby performances, it’s clear that the local players are on the right mental track and that the Boks will not want for ambition when they convene for the first Test against Scotland this July.

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    Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

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    Jon Cardinelli