JON CARDINELLI considers what the Springboks can learn from the Proteas’ disastrous World Cup campaign.
The Cricket World Cup will reach a climax this weekend. The Proteas, of course, will be watching the final from their living rooms – or not at all – after failing to progress beyond the round-robin phase.
Much has been said and written about South Africa’s worst-ever campaign. While cricket and rugby are very different, there are some lessons to be taken from the Proteas’ failure as the Boks prepare for the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
LEAVE THE PASSENGERS AT HOME
Injuries are a part of sport, and the Boks will experience their fair share of breakdowns at the coming tournament. That said, they cannot afford to take players who are still recovering or partially fit to Japan.
The Proteas went into the World Cup in England with several partially fit players. Kagiso Rabada recovered, while Lungi Ngidi broke down during the early stages of the tournament. Veteran Dale Steyn was eventually sent home without having bowled a single ball.
The Boks’ current injury list is extensive. There is still time for those players to recover – with four games remaining until the selection of the World Cup squad in late August.
That said, Rassie Erasmus must avoid the mistake made by his cricket counterpart Ottis Gibson. Players who are still battling in the lead-up to the squad announcement shouldn’t be pushed to travel to Japan.
SETTLE ON A COMBO
Skipper Faf du Plessis admitted that the Proteas were unsure about their best XI at the start of the tournament. It’s little wonder that the side lost their early matches and were out of the running for the playoffs after just seven round-robin games.
Erasmus should have a good idea about his strongest XV going into the 2019 Test season. The Bok coach has also made it clear that he will mix and match over the course of the World Cup campaign, with the strongest side fronting the likes of New Zealand and Italy and the second-stringers tackling Namibia and Canada. Everybody appears to know where they stand.
Injuries sustained in the coming Rugby Championship, however, may force Erasmus to revise his pecking order.
GET STUCK IN
The Proteas have been widely criticised for their lacklustre performances in England. The intensity and determination that has marked so many South African sporting sides of the past was largely absent.
The Boks shouldn’t want for motivation when they arrive in Japan. They’ve suffered too many losses over the past four years – even to the likes of Japan and Italy – to be absolutely certain of victory.
The class of 2016 will be remembered for its lack of energy and desire. This September, the Boks will need to get stuck in from the outset to improve their chances of qualifying for the playoffs and progressing to the decider itself.
HAVE A PLAN B
The Proteas struggled to adapt to the conditions in England. A lack of ideas compromised their ability to respond in pressure situations.
The good news for the Boks is that Erasmus and company have worked hard to develop an all-round approach over the past 18 months. The attack troubled the likes of the All Blacks last season – scoring five tries in Wellington – and there was significant progress in other areas of the game such as kicking and defence.
There will come a time when the Boks are forced to alter their approach according to the situation. It’s not a matter of if it happens at the World Cup, but when.
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
This is one is for the South African fans.
People need to remember how dire the situation was less than two years ago, when the Boks were suffering record defeats by the likes of New Zealand, Ireland and Wales. The Boks were ranked seventh in the world when Erasmus replaced Allister Coetzee in early 2018.
Erasmus has been honest about the state of the game in South Africa. One only need look at the performances of the four Vodacom Super Rugby franchises in the recent tournament to understand that there is still a lot of work to be done across provincial, regional and national levels of the game.
While the Boks showed an improvement in 2018 – especially against the All Blacks – they still finished the season with a mediocre win record of 50%.
Many of those in the know – including England coach Eddie Jones – believe that the Boks will be a force at the coming World Cup. Their record over the past four years, however, suggests that they will be dark horses at best. Expectations should be tempered accordingly.
The Proteas fared worse than anybody expected them to at the Cricket World Cup. It would be a stretch, however, to claim that they were ever favourites to win the tournament or even to progress to the final.
It’s something to bear in mind when the hype begins to build ahead of the global tournament in Japan. There are many reasons to be excited about the Boks, and they may yet surprise one or two more-fancied sides.
However, given the disappointments of the past four years, it wouldn’t come as a shock if they exited the tournament after the quarter-final stage.
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