• Journey to Japan

    All the building blocks are in place for the Springboks to launch a competitive World Cup campaign, writes JON CARDINELLI in the cover feature of the latest issue of SA Rugby Magazine.

    This Springbok group knows how to fight back. The past two seasons have witnessed ups and downs as the team has come to grips with Rassie Erasmus’ new structures and methods. What’s been constant – and what will fan the flame of hope before the big games at the World Cup in Japan – is the players’ attitude towards adversity.

    Less than two years ago, the Boks were ranked seventh in the world and critics at home and abroad were lamenting the decline of South African rugby. Since Erasmus came to power, the Boks have claimed important results and impressed with a more adventurous approach.

    The Boks exceeded expectations by winning the Rugby Championship in August. According to the players and coaches, however, there’s reason to hope for a bigger title in Japan.

    ‘I’m not surprised by where we are at present,’ Bok captain Siya Kolisi tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Plans were put in place in early 2018 and we’ve worked hard to realise a few goals in the lead-up to this World Cup.

    ‘We’d had a difficult time in 2016 and 2017. Rassie brought the group together in early 2018 and made it clear that the ultimate dream was to win the World Cup. He began by challenging our thinking, by getting us to shut out the noise and simply focus on the Springboks.

    ‘Then he put us to work. A guy like [athletic performance coach] Aled Walters made a difference with regard to our fitness. Rassie told us that he didn’t mind if we made mistakes. What he wanted to see was a desire to keep working.

    ‘Eventually we began to measure each other in this department, to spur each other on to work harder and harder. Something that began with Rassie was subsequently driven by the team. More players started to take ownership and suddenly the objective was there in black and white: just keep working as hard as you can.’

    Kolisi reveals how the attitude and work ethic of the group was put to the test in the early stages of the 2018 season. The Boks conceded a couple of early tries in the first match of the three-game series against England and looked to be on course for another big defeat.

    ‘We needed to fight back,’ he says. ‘We went on to win that game. While it wasn’t our best performance, it showed what we could achieve if we didn’t give up and if we never stopped working. It set the tone for matches to come. We started to believe that, no matter the situation, we could come back.’

    The Boks won the second Test in Bloemfontein to clinch the series. From there, however, they lost three of their next four matches. By the time they arrived in New Zealand, they were well and truly on the back foot.

    ‘We were on such a high after beating the Pumas in the opening game of the Rugby Championship,’ Kolisi remembers.

    ‘Then we lost two in a row away from home. There was a lot of criticism of Rassie and the players after that. People were expecting us to get an absolute hiding from the All Blacks in New Zealand. Obviously there was a lot of talk about the 57-0 loss only a year before.

    ‘Funny enough, we didn’t panic after that loss to Australia in Brisbane. It was a quiet sort of week in New Zealand. Rassie and the coaches took a step back and allowed us to take responsibility. We got stuck in at training, and as game day got close, we started to tell ourselves that we could do it. That’s what it was about for those few days in New Zealand, working for the man next to you and then leaving absolutely everything on the pitch on game day.

    ‘We conceded a couple of early tries, but that didn’t dent our confidence. We had been in that situation before. Again, there was a feeling among the guys standing behind the poles that we were still in the contest.

    ‘The fight the team showed in the latter stages of that game was amazing … and then to get the result on the back of that performance, and to achieve a rare win in New Zealand … it’s hard to describe what it did for the group. It didn’t feel like the end of a journey but the start of something new. That’s when we started to believe we could beat the best in the world.’

    That win against the All Blacks ended South Africa’s nine-year drought on New Zealand soil. It also forced many in the rugby community to revise their views on the Boks. Perhaps the Boks could beat the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup. Perhaps they could indeed challenge for the title itself.

    ‘That win also got the South African fans believing in us again,’ says Kolisi. ‘It was so special to see the big turnout for the follow-up Test against the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld. That in turn gave us a lift.

    ‘In the buildup to the 2019 Rugby Championship, there was a buzz in the camp and an excitement about what could be achieved. By the time the team arrived in Wellington, confidence was high. There were a lot of guys in that team who had featured in the win against the All Blacks in 2018. We didn’t get everything right on the day, but we fought hard to finish well and get the draw.’

    Kolisi and other members of the leadership group are quick to point out that the Boks are not the finished article yet. What’s significant – especially in light of the past four years – is the side is heading in the right direction. 

    ‘It’s important that we’ve come through a few of those close games with a win,’ says the Bok captain. ‘We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the losses too. Ultimately those contests have given us a taste of what to expect in the latter stages of the World Cup. We will go into those big games with the confidence that we can handle the pressure and respond when our backs are against the wall.’

    Duane Vermeulen, who led the Boks at the Cake Tin in Kolisi’s injury-enforced absence, shares the skipper’s view. ‘There have been losses over the past two years. There have been errors. It’s something we expected when we first came together in 2018,’ the veteran No 8 says.

    ‘Rassie said there would be bumps in the road en route to the World Cup. At the same time he told us to be mindful of the bigger picture. Those narrow losses helped build the character of the younger guys and bring us all closer together. To see those players who made their debuts in 2018 growing and maturing into the men they are now is fantastic.’

    The rise of the leadership collective has made all the difference to the Boks’ results. Faf de Klerk was part of the side that struggled in the 2016 season. Now back in the mix and flourishing in a starting role, the scrumhalf notes the difference between the two set-ups.

    ‘The biggest growth over the past two years has been in the leadership department,’ says De Klerk. ‘It’s not only about Siya as a captain, it’s about all of us 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 Mtawarira, you still have to pitch up and earn your place.

    ‘I’ve been involved with a few groups where it’s been negative, then positive, then negative,’ he adds. ‘This is the best team environment I’ve experienced. Hopefully we can maintain that throughout the World Cup.’

    The Boks were ranked seventh in the world after the disastrous run across the 2016 and 2017 season. Now they’re in a position to dream about lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.

    ‘There’s a great voyage ahead of us,’ Schalk Brits says. ‘Rassie and his team have pushed us very, very hard in training. The planning has been fantastic and we have a good idea of what we want to achieve.’

    The 38-year-old hooker will feature in his second World Cup tournament. He was third in the pecking order – behind Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss – at the 2015 competition in England. This year, he travels to Japan with a new role, if not a better chance of starting the big games.

    And, as he doesn’t mind saying, the approach and attitude at this World Cup will be different.

    ‘We had Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers, Schalk Burger and all those boys 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 each other on and off the pitch. It’s an exciting time for South African rugby.’

    RASSIE’S RECORD

    OVERALL: P: 18 W: 10 D: 1 L: 7 (56%)

    HOME: P: 8 W: 6 L: 2 (75%)

    AWAY: P: 10 W: 4 D: 1 L: 5 (40%)

    *From June 2018 to August 2019

    ROAD TO JAPAN

    L 20-22 vs Wales (Washington DC)

    W 42-39 vs England (Johannesburg)

    W 23-12 vs England (Bloemfontein)

    L 10-25 vs England (Cape Town)

    W 34-21 vs Argentina (Durban)

    L 19-32 vs Argentina (Mendoza)

    L 18-23 vs Australia (Brisbane)

    W 36-34 vs New Zealand (Wellington)

    W 23-12 vs Australia (Port Elizabeth)

    L 30-32 vs New Zealand (Pretoria)

    L 11-12 vs England (London)

    W 29-26 vs France (Paris)

    W 26-20 vs Scotland (Edinburgh)

    L 11-20 vs Wales (Cardiff)

    W 35-17 vs Australia (Johannesburg)

    D 16-16 vs New Zealand (Wellington)

    W 46-13 vs Argentina (Salta)

    W 24-18 vs Argentina (Pretoria)