Cape Town – Just a few weeks ago, having ended the Rugby Championship on a high with consolation victory over world champions New Zealand, South Africa looked particularly firmly rooted as second-best rugby power in the world.
An unexpectedly bumpy end-of-year tour, in which the Springboks won two and lost two of their northern hemisphere fixtures, will not greatly affect their position on the IRB rankings for the time being, but a few perky Six Nations outfits no doubt feel now that the Boks could be eclipsed by them at next year’s UK-staged World Cup even as the All Blacks should remain very clear-cut silverware favourites.
In short, Heyneke Meyer’s stuttering charges have been dragged more markedly at the end of 2014 into the “best of the rest” pack of other RWC hopefuls.
These ranks include Ireland -- the biggest northern advancers in November with their twin wins over the Boks and Wallabies – but also England, belatedly buoyed by a nine-point triumph over the Aussies at Twickenham on Saturday, the supposedly “choking” Wales who finally kept their heads this time for only their second ever victory over SA, and even a flowering Scotland.
The Scots gave Richie McCaw’s otherwise still-rampant New Zealanders a fright in only losing 24-16 at Murrayfield recently, and are widely considered to be making real strides under new coach Vern Cotter.
They are worth mentioning because they will be the one obstacle from the Six Nations ranks that the Boks face in group play at RWC 2015, just down from the Scottish border in Newcastle on October 3 – it firmly now shapes as the toughest Pool B fixture on paper, with Samoa, Japan and the United States still unlikely to present significant problems.
Of course South African fans -- many of whom tend to do over-emotional pretty well – are deeply disgruntled by the Irish and Welsh slip-ups on tour and inevitably calling for heads, and some instability has taken root within the existing Bok camp anyway through the serious knee injury sustained by luckless captain Jean de Villiers.
But it also needs to be kept in mind that top South African players are usually more knackered than their All Black counterparts at the end of the calendar year – our players do not have the luxury of specific resting periods or even sabbaticals because of the bigger hold their Super Rugby franchises have over them than occurs in New Zealand.
Super Rugby, especially with the desperate, bruising SA derbies, takes a heavy toll on our players, even if the Boks did have the rare luxury this year of a camp in the latter stages of the Currie Cup: was it perhaps such a novelty that it only bred a false sense of security and comfort as the Boks got on their long-haul flight for chillier northern climes?
So some of the Bok staleness and sterility displayed may well be down to traditional fatigue at this time of the year, and only re-emphasise the need for a more concerted, sympathetic buy-in by franchises in the national interest in World Cup year. (Maybe that is that still the most naive of wishes.)
The Boks also took to the field against Wales minus several players who should be right in the First XV mix for any critical matches at RWC 2015 – these include Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Fourie du Preez, Jannie du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Schalk Burger and Francois Louw and that is already almost half a team of proven warriors.
Nevertheless, UK media optimism suddenly knows no bounds in terms of the perception early this week that the north-south gap is finally narrowing to a notable degree, with the Boks and the stubbornly still wobbling Wallabies considered ripe for further plucking a bit further up the line.
As scribe Simon Thomas pointed out on Wales Online on Monday (www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-news/autumn-internationals-2014-warren-gatlands-8202084), there have been five victories for northern teams over southern heavyweights in November, “which is pretty much unprecedented”.
He said that even the All Blacks looked human at times.
Thomas believes the Boks are “a team with problems” and that a 50 percent return on their latest Euro venture will be viewed as a real regression.
“A lacklustre and error-strewn performance (at Millennium Stadium), devoid of virtually any cutting edge in attack, will have come as a real concern, following on from their tour-opening defeat in Dublin where they paid the price for complacency.
“There were some individual (tour) plusses, with Duane Vermeulen, Eben Etzebeth and Schalk Burger confirming their status as top quality forwards, while Willie le Roux remains a gifted fullback despite his Cardiff calamities.
“But overall, not a happy autumn almanac.”
If the Boks commanded any sort of halo north of the equator, it has clearly slipped at a fairly inconvenient time ...
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