The Springboks’ status as the best Test team in the world and their preparation for the British & Irish Lions series have been called into question.
The cross-examination came from New Zealand rugby scribe Ben Smith in a column on RugbyPass.com.
Smith credited the Boks as deserved World Cup winners, but questioned whether that feat gave them the right to call themselves the best team in the world at the moment.
‘They are rightfully World Cup holders, but this era of Springboks rugby hasn’t proven to the world they are anything but a good side who won the World Cup with a helpful schedule,’ Smith wrote.
‘The first world champions to lose a game in the World Cup tournament and win it, after about a year of playing well. The last calendar year with a full slate of games against tier-one opposition in 2018, the side finished with a 50 percent win rate.’
The Springboks were drawn in the same pool as defending champions New Zealand at the 2019 World Cup. After losing their opening pool game to the All Blacks, the Boks beat hosts Japan in the quarter-finals, Warren Gatland’s Wales in the semi-finals and England – who had qualified after beating Australia and New Zealand in the playoffs – in the final.
Smith questioned the thinking behind the Springboks’ withdrawal from the 2020 Rugby Championship, while praising Argentina for sending a team to the Australia-based tournament and upsetting the odds by beating the All Blacks.
‘Were they worried the shine of their world champion status would have rubbed off with a pasting at the hands of the All Blacks? Or worse, a loss to the Wallabies in Australia, where the Springboks have a horrendous record over the last 20 years?
‘The Springboks have ducked competition and hid since winning the World Cup, trying to prop up an illusion that this side is the best team in the world instead of making that a reality with a bold 2020 campaign.’
When SA Rugby had made the decision to pull out of the Rugby Championship last October, SA-based players had played only one round of competitive domestic matches in 29 weeks.
In contrast, New Zealand and Australia’s players had just contested a Test match, 17 weeks and 14 weeks, respectively, after they resumed competitive rugby with their own domestic competitions.
There were also reports that the withdrawal had cost SA Rugby into the millions of rands in terms of lost revenue, meaning that it was not a decision that was taken lightly.
Smith challenged predictions that the Springboks would whitewash the Lions in the upcoming series, arguing that the tourists had faced a tougher side in their drawn series against the 2017 All Blacks.
‘You could argue the Springboks’ preparations for the Lions tour are as bad, or even worse, as that of what was asked in 2020 for the Rugby Championship, yet there is little chance we see them pull out due to concerns over player welfare in Test rugby this time.
‘That’s not to say it will be a walk in the park by any means, but if you think the experienced Lions players haven’t had tougher opponents, you are kidding yourself.
‘Quell the talk of a Springboks whitewash – just win the series. That will be enough to add some merit to being the world’s best, but that is just the first building block,’ Smith added.
SA Rugby has confirmed that the Boks’ will return to action in a two-Test series in July, which will act as a warm-up for the Lions series.
Photo: Steve Haag