The South African teams’ shocking results in Australasia, Argentina, and even Asia over the past three years points to a problem beyond the physical, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Springboks have an opportunity to start anew. There’s been a lot of talk about forgetting the failures of the past few seasons and about regaining some respect in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
That said, has South African rugby really moved forward in recent times? Indeed, while the Super Rugby sides appear to be playing with more passion and intent in 2018, the results – more specifically the defeats sustained on the road – paint a worrying picture.
The Sunwolves scored a historic victory over the Stormers in Hong Kong on Saturday. This was not a failure in isolation when one considers that the Stormers have lost every single away fixture in 2018. That record includes a loss to the Waratahs in Sydney and two defeats in New Zealand.
The problem is not limited to the embattled Cape franchise. Overall, the four South African Super Rugby franchises have combined for a pathetic record of two wins in 17 overseas matches this season.
Sad to say it, but we’ve come to expect losses in Australia and New Zealand. Nowadays, however, the South African teams lose regularly in South America as well as in Australasia.
The Jaguares smashed the Bulls 54-24 in Buenos Aires on Saturday night. Fourteen rounds into the tournament, and no South African side has won in Argentina.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be worried about the recent failures in Australasia. I’ve noticed a lot of South African fans poking fun at Australia’s 40-game losing streak against New Zealand Super Rugby opposition. What they fail to acknowledge is that South African rugby’s record against New Zealand teams has been similarly poor over the past three years, and that the local sides haven’t exactly dominated Australia’s struggling franchises.
Since the start of 2016, the South African sides have combined for a 25% win record against New Zealand opponents and a 59% win record against Australian teams.
What’s really interesting to note is the combined win record of 32% at overseas venues during this period – more specifically in Australia (39%), New Zealand (12%), Argentina (27%) and Asia (70%).
2018 was supposed to be different. Instead, we’ve seen the Lions, South Africa’s top side, scoring one win in five overseas matches. The Sharks were the only side to win a match in New Zealand – against the Blues in Auckland.
The Bulls and Stormers have lost eight tour matches between them this season. Neither side has won a game in New Zealand over the past three years – in fact, the Bulls haven’t won there since 2013. These results can’t be written off to travel fatigue.
The question has been raised by many a Bok coach in the professional era. How can a player expect to win Tests in these parts of the world after experiencing defeat – and in some instances, embarrassment – in those same countries over the course of the Super Rugby season? How do they build belief and confidence ahead of a tournament like the Rugby Championship?
And if we’re going to restrict the conversation to Super Rugby, how can players believe that a playoff win in Australasia is possible when they can’t even win regularly during the conference stage? Expect many a critic, coach, and player to wrestle with that question when one or two local teams travel Down Under during the knockout phase.
Don’t get me wrong, South Africa boasts some exciting and skillful players. All four of the local sides have played some good rugby over the course of the season, and apart from two or three problem positions, Bok coach Rassie Erasmus should have plenty of options at his disposal this season.
That said, part of the reason why the Boks haven’t won a Test in New Zealand since 2009 or in Australia since 2013 is down to the local teams’ inability to win regularly in Australasia during the preceding Super Rugby season. It’s a significant mental hurdle that seems to grow larger and larger with every passing year.
Erasmus and his lieutenants have visited the respective franchises in recent months. They’ve shared information and drills and strategies with the four coaches.
There have been improvements in certain departments, but as yet, there has been no consistency in terms of results.
For now, Erasmus will focus on the games against Wales – a match played on neutral ground – and England – a three-match series played in South Africa. The Bok coach may hope that a successful run across these four Tests will generate some belief among the players and see the Boks well placed before the all-important Rugby Championship.
It will be interesting to see whether the new coach chooses to acknowledge the greater problem sooner rather than later, though, and whether he opts to tackle it head on.
Why can’t South African teams win regularly overseas, and why are they battling to put away teams like the Jaguares and Sunwolves on the road?
The Boks beat Argentina, France and Italy away from home last year. The record of three wins in 13 overseas Tests between 2016 and 2017 speaks volumes, though.
When was the last time the Boks scored a meaningful win against a top opponent in foreign climes? The victory against Wales in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final? The one-off win against England at Twickenham in 2014?
Going by what we’ve seen these past few months, the problem is more than physical. And until that mental issue is addressed, we should expect to see more of the same in Australasia, and possibly more disappointments in Argentina and Asia, in the years to come.
Photo: William West/AFP/Getty Images