Survival doesn’t equal strength

The Springboks dodged a bullet in Port Elizabeth, but they may not be ready for the rapid fire that awaits them in the Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Joe Schmidt and his Ireland side leave South African shores as heroes. Nobody would have backed Ireland ahead of the three-Test series after they finished the 2016 Six Nations in third place. Nobody would have put serious money on them to win as much as a game after Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and several other big names were ruled out because of injuries.

Somehow, Ireland managed to win the first Test against the Springboks at Newlands, not just with the depleted team that they had, but the depleted team that they had minus one. That’s right, a 14-man Ireland side was responsible for the historic win on South African soil.

Just as Heyneke Meyer will have to live with the fact that he presided over a Bok loss to Japan, Allister Coetzee will go down in history as the Bok coach who lost the first home Test to Ireland.

If not for the miraculous comeback at Ellis Park, if not for more than their fair share of luck at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, the Boks would now be cringing in the wake of a first-ever series defeat to a home-nation side.

How is it that their coach is beating his chest as if the team is suddenly on course to win the 2019 World Cup?

I watched the third and decisive Test at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. I watched the reaction of the fans and the media as the Boks competed against this second-string Ireland outfit for 80 minutes.

There was as much fear as there was passion in the eyes of the South African supporters. The Boks were not playing to win the series as much as they were playing to avoid a humiliating series loss.

And in the end, they needed a bit of luck to achieve that objective. Those at the ground knew it, and the cheer at the final whistle contained as much relief as it did elation.

Some might feel there’s reason to celebrate after the victory in Port Elizabeth. Some might want to ignore an uncomfortable truth regarding South African rugby’s standing in the game.

The Boks remain third in the World Rugby standings. There’s been nothing in the past series against Ireland to suggest that they will improve on that standing before the year is out.

Challenge the All Blacks for the No 1 ranking? You’ve got to be joking.

It’s been disturbing to note how many South Africans have delighted in Australia’s 3-0 series loss to England. What will they say if the Boks lose to the Wallabies later this year? And who do they believe are the favourites in the clash between Eddie Jones’s England and Coetzee’s South Africa at Twickenham this November? 

Here’s a clue: it’s the side that produced at least one convincing performance in the June Test series.

Survival does not equal strength. I agree with Coetzee when he says South African fans should be happy with the fact that the Boks won a Test series against Ireland. What I don’t agree with is the manner in which that victory has been achieved. I also don’t agree with Coetzee’s assessment that the Boks are well placed ahead of the Rugby Championship.

Schmidt and his charges achieved a great deal on their tour to South Africa, but it was a stretch for the coach to suggest that the north is catching up to the south. If the June Tests have proved anything, it’s that Australia and South Africa are in trouble. New Zealand remain well ahead of the chasing pack.

Argentina have also scored some notable wins in recent years. There may be a fierce contest between Argentina, Australia and South Africa for second place in this year’s Rugby Championship. Again, it shouldn’t be construed as Argentina catching up as much as Australia and South Africa regressing.

In the recent series, Ireland exposed a few physical and mental frailties in the South African game. The Boks won the series, but one cannot help but feel that the coaching staff was outdone by that of the Irish.

Coetzee and his lieutenants have much to do in the coming months if they are going to weather the Rugby Championship challenge. The Wallabies will be under pressure to hit back after the disaster against England. The All Blacks, of course, boast the best coaching staff and rugby system in the world.

The expectations of the Boks in the Rugby Championship, and of the South African coaching staff, should be tempered after such an uninspiring showing against a depleted Ireland side.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Jon Cardinelli