Four senior Springboks highlight the improvements made to the culture and game plan in the two years leading up to the 2019 World Cup. JON CARDINELLI reports.
‘There’s a great voyage ahead of us,’ Schalk Brits says when I catch up with him shortly after the World Cup squad announcement in Johannesburg.
The statement speaks volumes for the group’s mindset. The Boks were ranked seventh in the world after a disastrous run across the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Now, on the eve of the global tournament in Japan, they’re in a position to dream about lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
Brits becomes more animated as he considers the Boks’ current position.
‘These are exciting times,’ he says. ‘A lot of hard work has gone into the pre-tournament preparations. Rassie and his team have pushed us very, very hard in training. The planning has been fantastic and we will go to Japan with a good idea of what we want to achieve.’
Brits was third in the pecking order – behind Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss – when the Boks competed at the 2015 event in England. This year, he will go to Japan with a new role, if not a better chance of starting the big games.
The approach and attitude this time around will be different.
‘We had Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers, Schalk Burger and all those senior guys at the previous tournament. This time round, we won’t have as much experience, but there is a lot of competition within the team and everyone is pushing for starting positions.
‘What is also important to note is that everyone is supporting one another on and off the pitch.’
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) August 27, 2019
When the Boks suffered their worst-ever home defeat by the All Blacks in 2016, Duane Vermeulen – then playing for Toulon – called for a change to the local systems and structures. The straight-talking No 8 lamented the state of SA Rugby and the decline in standards.
Over the past two years, the Boks have improved and even managed to secure a few landmark victories. Vermeulen explains that significant changes were always going to take time to implement.
‘Rassie said it from the start of 2018 that there would be bumps in the road en route to the 2019 World Cup. He told us to expect that, but to keep the bigger picture in mind.
‘There were some narrow losses but I suppose that helped to build the character of the younger guys. To see those players who debuted in 2018 and more recently growing and maturing into the men they are now is fantastic.
‘It’s a special group,’ Vermeulen added. ‘We’ve got a good coaching staff and I think everyone works well together. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can achieve in Japan over the next few months.’
Bok captain Siya Kolisi on how Rassie Erasmus has taken the team to a new level. pic.twitter.com/7TjsNfsZeq
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) August 27, 2019
Beast Mtawarira featured for the Boks at the 2011 and 2015 World Cup tournaments. While the 2019 edition should be his last, he has reason to believe it will be one to remember.
‘We improved a helluva lot in the Rugby Championship,’ the veteran prop says of the Boks’ recent title-winning campaign. ‘The key is in how we train. What we experience in training is actually tougher than what we experience on game day.
‘So I guess it’s about chasing our own standards from hereon in. We have to keep improving. We know it will only get tougher as the World Cup progresses.’
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) August 26, 2019
Faf de Klerk was part of the side that struggled throughout the 2016 Test season. He left South Africa in 2017 uncertain about his future.
In 2018, Erasmus opted to recall De Klerk – following the scrumhalf’s stellar performances for Sale Sharks in the English Premiership – and make him part of the leadership group.
Siya Kolisi has come a long way as a captain over the past 18 months. But, as De Klerk explains, the rise of the leadership collective has made all the difference to the Boks’ results.
‘The biggest growth over the past two years has been in the leadership department,’ De Klerk says. ‘It’s not only about Siya as a captain, it’s about taking ownership in how we want to play.
‘We can’t get lost in structure. Game management has been crucial in terms of our No 9s, 10s and 15s making big improvements.
‘Other than that, the fitness levels are amazing. Everybody is putting their hands up for that starting spot. Whether you have one cap or 100-odd, like Beast, you still have to pitch up and earn your place.’
In 2016, De Klerk was part of a team that suffered a series of humiliating losses and finished the season with the worst annual win record in history.
Now he’s a part of a side that’s in a position to surprise a few of the more fancied teams at the 2019 World Cup.
‘I’ve been involved with a few groups where it’s been negative, then positive, then negative. This is the best environment I’ve ever been in,’ he says.
‘Hopefully we can maintain that throughout the World Cup. It’s a long time to be away and I’m sure there will be a few disagreements, but we are great mates and I believe we will go out there and enjoy the experience as a team.’
Photo: EPA/Jan Touzeau