The Springboks of 2017 are a better team than a year ago, regardless of what happens in Australia and New Zealand in the next fortnight.
I don’t share the view that Saturday’s Test or the visit to New Zealand the following Saturday will define the Springboks' season. It will give shape to the season but there isn’t a match big enough to define the season because it’s not a World Cup tournament.
To define a season means it is the make or break of it.
And it’s not like a Springbok team has never lost away from home in Australia or New Zealand.
There has to be calm pre the next fortnight and calm post it; whatever the outcome.
The results over the next two weekends can’t make or break the year because there is so much rugby left in 2017. The Boks still have to play the Wallabies in Bloemfontein and host the All Blacks in Cape Town.
Then there’s the not so small matter of Ireland in Dublin, restoring order against Italy and the season finale against a French team that will be a very different opponent to the tired imposter that took a three-nil series whipping in South Africa.
The next two Tests will simply be a reminder of how much there is still to be done or a reinforcement of how much has been done since the horror of losing to England, Italy and Wales in the last three Tests of 2016.
There has been so much to appreciate about the Springboks in the season’s five successive wins and that can’t be erased because of what may or may not transpire in Perth and in Albany.
The expectation is that the Springboks will win against Australia and be very competitive against the All Blacks. This alone shows how much progress there has been with these Boks as a group in 2017.
There was very little expectation when the Boks toured at the end of 2016. That there is belief again speaks volumes for how the team played against the French and Pumas.
I’m excited about the next two Springboks matches and ‘win, lose or draw this group of players will be stronger for the experience’. It’s a line that Steve Hansen used on the eve of the All Blacks third Test decider against the British and Irish Lions. It’s cliché but it’s hard to counter.
Hansen said there had to be perspective in the occasion and in the match. He said two very good teams were playing for the same prize. He said the All Blacks would have to play well to win and that victory was not a given because they were the All Blacks.
Perspective needs to be applied when assessing the Springboks' prospects against the Wallabies on Saturday. The Wallabies have been indifferent, at best, in 2017 but they did show just enough attacking class in both Tests against the All Blacks to remind every South African that a victory is not a given.
The Wallabies, in the second half in Sydney and the first 15 minutes in Dunedin, scored seven unanswered tries against the All Blacks.
It wasn’t enough to get them a victory in either Test, which says as much about the quality of the All Blacks as it does anything, but it would have given the Australian players a belief that they could still play the game.
It should be a reminder to South Africans that there is enough quality within the Australian set up to beat the Springboks if everything clicks on the day.
I have the Springboks to win by less than a converted try, but if they lose it wouldn’t be a shock.
There is very little to choose between the two teams and every statistic supports just how close Saturday’s Test will be.
Historically nothing separates the two teams - and that’s a fact. In 101 Rugby Championship matches the two teams have won, drawn and lost exactly the same amount of games. Incredibly they’ve pretty much conceded the same amount of points.
The similarities don’t just stretch over a 21 year period because in the two Rugby Championship matches of 2017 South Africa and Australia have scored nine tries and their attacking statistics are very similar, despite the difference in quality of their respective opponents.
I’ve been bullish about the Springboks in 2017.
I was emphatic the Boks would hammer the French in all three Tests and comfortably deal with Argentina home and away. I wrote in a previous column a good return for 2017 would be four wins from six and felt the Boks to be good enough to win against the Wallabies in Australia and in South Africa.
I’m even more convinced now that this is possible but I am wary of the Aussies, especially after some of the attacking play against the All Blacks.
The Wallabies have some of the best outside backs in the game and they have an effective lineout.
They’ve always had a suspect scrum, yet often they’ve manipulated the set piece and milked penalties against opposition scrum units that are decidedly stronger and more dominant.
There must be a healthy regard for the ability of the Australians and there also must be respect for the occasion that it is an away Test match.
This is in no way a home Test for the Springboks. I’ve been in Perth often enough for Test matches to know it’s very pro the Wallabies on match-day. It’s a myth that Perth in any way has the feel of a South African home Test.
And yes, I am not as bullish about the outcome as I’d like to be. You could say I am cautiously optimistic, which translated means I am bloody nervous!
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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