Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Some analysts seem to believe South Africa topping their group at the World Cup will be pretty close to a formality.
They would presumably argue, among other things, that the Springboks benefit greatly from playing no-one ranked any higher than 10th in the latest World Rugby rankings. (The potential down side, of course, would be arriving at the later stages not quite as hardened as would be considered ideal.)
Having just wriggled back up a notch to third themselves, albeit that they have been inactive for several weeks and benefited from Ireland’s tumble from second to sixth after a weekend defeat to England at Twickenham, the Boks look even more likely on paper now to finish first and undefeated for a comfortable passage to the quarter-finals.
A more cautionary view, however, might be that if they find one game tougher than they expect in Pool B, the same might just apply to several others.
That is because all four of their opponents in the early phase of RWC 2015 are suddenly lumped within a particularly tight range on the rankings table, which will not alter again until after the tournament has started.
The clash with Scotland in Newcastle on October 3 should be the most challenging, based purely on the official global pecking order, as the Scots lie unchanged in 10th after coming off a desperately narrow 19-16 defeat in France on Saturday; it nearly broke a 16-year drought for them in Paris.
What is interesting, though, is that with the United States having just climbed a rung to 15th, all of the Boks’ pool opponents now lie between berths 10-15 (Samoa are 12th and Japan 13th).
The rankings points spread is not that vast, either, as the Scots boast 75.88 points and the USA five spots beneath them 70.36.
Most observers would understandably contend that the two middle games of the group – Samoa and Scotland – pose the main threat to the Boks in terms of possible giant-slayings, and they would be using history rather than current rankings as the major barometer.
While the uncompromising Samoans have never yet beaten South Africa, they did run them uncomfortably close at the last World Cup before succumbing 13-5 at North Harbour, easily the tightest margin yet in eight bilateral encounters.
Scotland, meanwhile, can boast five previous victories over the Boks, even if the overall record stands at 20-5 in SA favour.
The “easiest” pool games for Heyneke Meyer’s charges, then, ought to be the first (Japan) and last (USA) ... but the tightness of the rankings situation suggests just the chance that that turns out to be an erroneous forecast.
South Africa may still need both mentally and physically to “pitch up”, as they say, four times rather than just twice.
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