With the Test season proper about to commence, the Springboks' primary mission is simple: unseat the All Blacks as the best team in the world, writes RYAN VREDE.
The Springboks lost just two Tests in 2013, both against the All Blacks, who entrenched themselves as the pre-eminent side in the game with an unbeaten season. They shadowed the Blacks in all key performance areas but were blitzed at Ellis Park by the world champions, who continue to find ways to evolve and avoid stagnation.
An away victory in Australia and the maintenance of their unbeaten record in Europe under coach Heyneke Meyer underlined their impressive progress since he took the reins two seasons ago. At the end of 2013 there was clear breathing room between them as suitors to the Blacks' throne and those in the chasing pack. Two defeats in a Test season, one referee Romain Pointe contributed to significantly through a weak performance, constituted a strong season and was a base from which to launch their assault on the No 1 ranking this year.
Having set the aforementioned benchmark, they must not regress. Progress will be defined by their performance against the All Blacks in Wellington and then beating them at Ellis Park in October. I think they'll heed the lessons that emerged from last season's Ellis Park defeat and reverse that result. They're also at a point in their journey under Meyer where they can seriously contemplate taking the points from the Cake Tin clash. The Springboks haven't beaten the Blacks since 2011, a run of four Tests. They have to arrest that trend.
On the evidence of the last decade, one has to assume that the Blacks will find a way to improve. Indeed this has been at the heart of them occupying the summit of the game's rankings for as long as they have. This complicates the Springboks' task. They're not chasing a stationary target, but a dynamic and formidable one that's fiercely protective and proud of their status.
One senses the Blacks are acutely aware of the pursuit, more so than they have been since the 2009 season, when they were second best to the Springboks. The emphatic 38-27 victory at Ellis Park was a statement of superiority over their historical rivals. It revealed that, while the gap between the sides has narrowed, they remain by some distance the best side in the world, one capable of feats like beating the Springboks at altitude, at a ground where their hosts have traditionally thrived.
Tactically the Springboks have shown the ability to trouble any side, including the Blacks, on attack, and barring some soft moments have defended well (they conceded three more tries and scored one less than the Blacks in the Rugby Championship). They also have experienced players equipped with the temperament for the big occasion and youngsters who've shown immense promise.
They'll need good fortune with injuries. Already a number of key players have sustained season-ending injuries, with a clutch more nursing serious knocks at present. The Blacks' central contracting system gives them a greater degree of certainty on the last count, but overall the ingredients are there for the Springboks to oust Richie McCaw's champion side. We wait.
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