Cape Town – Leapfrogging Australia back into second place on the World Rugby rankings … that would represent a solid step in the right direction in Allister Coetzee’s first year as Springbok coach.
It is asking a bit much at this stage to expect him to immediately engineer a renaissance that sees currently third-placed South Africa muscle out World Cup champions New Zealand from the head of the global pile.
For one thing, the All Blacks are well entrenched there with 96.10 ranking points, compared with the 89.33 of the Wallabies and 87.66 of the Boks, as the traditional southern hemisphere big three continue to boss the “podium” places in the pecking order.
New Zealand rugby as a whole still seems a fair way clear of the rest for excellence both in results and style of play, a situation only amplified by their grip – again -- on Super Rugby so far this year (remember they also boast both the champions and runners-up from 2015).
So Coetzee must be allowed to claw back ground for the Boks in small, reasonably patient steps, especially in his acclimatising maiden Test season in 2016.
He will win over many of those who may doubt him if he manages, at least, in the period to manoeuvre his charges back above Australia.
The more sober of Bok supporters and analysts are probably prepared to concede that eclipsing the trend-setting All Blacks anew is a patient project requiring a longer period, but they are always uncomfortable sitting behind the Wallabies as well for bragging rights on the ladder.
So if the 2016 Boks can end the year back in “silver”, it will almost certainly mean that the new mastermind is making tangible early progress.
All three southern superpowers are involved in three-Test home series during the traditional June window – the Boks against Ireland, All Blacks against Wales and Wallabies against England.
Australia’s challenge obviously looks the toughest, given that Aussie-born coach Eddie Jones takes his English Grand Slam-securing, 2016 Six Nations champions Down Under, whereas NZ face the runners-up from that tournament and the Boks the third-placed side.
Then the Rugby Championship looms on the radar later in the southern season for the big three, joined for the fifth time since the scrapping of the former Tri-Nations by Argentina: the competition returns to a double round this year after a shortened, reasonably experimental flavour in the 2015 RWC year when Australia nominally won it for the first time as the All Blacks largely kept their eyes on the bigger picture in the UK just beyond it.
The Championship is a title that continues to elude the Boks, who suffered the rare indignity of ending bottom – including shock Durban defeat to the Pumas – so they will want to improve by at least two positions this year; expect the All Blacks to be duly installed as favourites.
One development in the tournament that would do wonders for Coetzee’s popularity is beating New Zealand in one – both would naturally be nirvana – of the two bilateral clashes, given that predecessor Heyneke Meyer’s biggest shortcoming in his four years was his record against those formidable foes.
It would seem likelier in the Kings Park fixture on October 8, as the earlier game on September 17 is in Christchurch, where South Africa have not won since 1965.
During Meyer’s time, the Boks lost seven of the eight bilateral encounters, snatching just one triumph at the death (27-25) at Ellis Park in 2014 when Pat Lambie kept his nerve to bang over a long-range penalty.
That sequence depressingly saw the All Blacks only stretch their overall, historical supremacy over the Boks to 53-35 in the wins column and a particularly clear-cut 38-15 for the post-isolation period; the Boks had usually held the aces in the pre-professional era.
South Africa still lead Australia, by contrast, 45-35 overall, although again since 1992 it is the Aussies who hold the edge by a 28-24 margin.
Under Meyer, the Boks beat the Wallabies four times in seven meetings.
After the Championship, all three countries embark on customary end-of-year tours of the northern hemisphere, where success or otherwise in each case will have an effect on final World Rugby rankings for 2016.
The Boks seemingly have the player material, especially in the engine room, to be able to optimistically enough target sneaking above the Aussies in the short term.
Over to you, Allister …
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