Boks still RWC force, but ...
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Despite their flying home two rounds earlier than they would have liked from New Zealand, I have barely shifted my view that the Springboks remain a force in World Cup terms.
I am also steadfast in my opinion that, strange as it may seem considering that they lost, the Boks actually produced one of the most passionate and ruthless performances of the entire knockout phase before being gut-wrenchingly squeezed out 11-9 by the Wallabies in that much-debated quarter-final.
In terms of their philosophical approach to the tournament, South Africa could hardly be accused of having made a hash of things: RWC 2011 certainly sent out another strong reminder that World Cups are indeed won far more on a template of conservatism than “sexy rugby”, if you like.
Even those fitting winners, the normally fleet-footed All Blacks, found themselves unusually dragged into a desperately tight battle of attrition, nerve and patience by France in the final, which turned out to be the lowest-scoring of all seven World Cup showpiece games yet.
Dare I say it, and for the very little it is worth in retrospect, the final was played out in the kind of grim, physical manner the Boks would have been more than up for. If only ...
From the quarter-finals onward, try-scoring generally became a near-bonus aspect and there were at least three encounters marked by freakishly lean scorelines: apart from the Boks-Wallabies game, there was also the 9-8 semi-final result between France and Wales and then the final itself ... if you’d had the benefit of knowing beforehand that Richie McCaw’s side would register a flimsy eight points at Eden Park, would you have been quick to tip them as the Webb Ellis Cup winners? I rather doubt it.
Even in their own “QF” against Argentina, remember, the All Blacks could only get over the whitewash for the first time in the 68th minute and the main foundation for their triumph was Piri Weepu’s seven penalty goals.
I suppose what all this is leading up to, is my saying that if anyone suspected the Boks, as defending champions, seemed intent only on reinventing the wheel at the latest World Cup, then those fears were largely proved unfounded.
Like several other teams to have qualified for the knockout phase, South Africa produced enough evidence in pool play, where the spirit quite obviously tends to be rather more expansive, that they can offer more than a mere “blunt instrument” approach to the game.
Bad luck and some contentious aspects played their part in the Bok exit from RWC 2011, and the fact remains that South Africa still sit very comfortably alongside the other southern hemisphere giants, Australia and at long last New Zealand, as twice each winners of the event.
Now if you are just beginning to feel that my take on the Boks is a tad too kind as we all chew on the immediate future, here is the harsher element of my critique: for starters, they no longer have the liberty of strutting around as World Cup champions, with the kind of leeway and allure that goes with it.
When you have your four years enjoying that status, after all, you are often excused some results indiscretions in between, given that team bosses quickly start talking up “bigger picture” issues like the quest to retain the global crown and some elements of “experimentation” leading up it.
That luxury has gone - the harsh reality is that the Boks currently sit at fourth in the IRB rankings, having even fallen marginally behind RWC surprise packages France, and just clawing back up a few rungs has got to be a priority in the short-to-medium term.
South African rugby fans have high expectations: fourth on the ladder simply isn’t considered good enough, and probably never will be.
The Boks also have some serious redemption work to do in terms of Tri-Nations performance, even as that tournament changes character slightly - and perhaps not before time - with the infusion of Argentina.
In some respects, the intended installation of the South Americans may suit South Africa, in bringing in another team with an emphasis on “grunt” and scrumming and mauling power, which may just serve to curb a little the traditional All Black and Wallaby penchant for throwing the ball about with glee and make more matches in the competition closer in style to RWC knockout play.
But Argentina or no Argentina henceforth, the Boks’ Tri-Nations record between the last two World Cups is notably poor, with that solitary triumph in Peter de Villiers’s one standout Test year (2009) only masking a pathetic 2008, 2010 and 2011 in the event, when South Africa were emphatically last on each occasion.
There is also the niggly little matter of trying to sneak back ahead of Australia to at least be considered second best in the “south” once more: the Wallabies have won all of their last four Tests against South Africa and are not shy to trumpet that fact.
As I said, the Boks are and ought to remain a World Cup power to be reckoned with. But now they must finally find some meat to fill a mostly tasteless sandwich in the years between RWCs.
That will be a key challenge of the new coach, whoever it turns out to be ...Rob is Sport24's chief writer
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