Johannesburg - Today, September 20 in two years’ time Rugby’s showpiece tournament – the Rugby World Cup – will kick off in Tokyo, Japan as 20 Nations will gather in search of the sport’s Holy Grail.
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But after Saturday’s brutal 57-0 win by the defending champions, New Zealand over the Springboks so many questions are left unanswered as we head towards the countdown to the Rugby World Cup.
For one, just what does the defeat mean for the Springboks, is it an aberration? Or a symptom of a larger malaise? Has it dealt a body blow for SA Rugby’s policy of only selecting locally-based players or will that pay off in 24 months’ time?
Are the Springboks on the right track? Will they be experienced enough, powerful enough and ready for their pool clash with the All Blacks? And if they are to be, is 24 months preparation enough to bring them back from the brink of a 57-0 scoreline?
Abroad there are bigger questions – World Rugby’s unfettered love for the men in black has created such a situation where they may be left with egg on their face and a tournament where there simply is no competition for the New Zealanders?
Australian rugby is in decline, the Boks were dealt blows of shock and awe in Albany and the other semifinalist from 2011 – Argentina - have lost 13 of their last 15 test matches, leaving their own policy of selecting local players only in tatters.
It’s hard to blame the Kiwis though – they have been an example of professionalism and poise, taking the best parts of the game that people love and using their various competitions to leave the All Black brand stronger.
If anything, the rest of the world has fallen behind at such a pace that there are real fears that they may not be able to cope in two years’ time.
Many folks point rightly to England as pretenders to the throne and the work that Eddie Jones has done with the team has been exceptional, building both belief and momentum on the back of a rugby system that is the most well-funded machine in world rugby.
England also have a junior team that has played in all five of the last World Rugby Junior Championships, winning three and losing only two to New Zealand. When talking about rising talent, coming through the system in an environment of success, England will feel very confident two years out from their big challenge in Japan.
Of course a World Cup can produce a one-off freak result – almost two years ago to the day in Brighton Japan caused the biggest shock in World Rugby history by beating the Springboks, and there will be several who will argue the Boks’ problems started back on that day.
But despite lacking on inspirational play in their following games, the Boks did manage to head towards the semifinals of the tournament and lost by two points to the All Blacks in the process. A penalty against Victor Matfield that was reversed by the referee still haunts many of those players.
The big question now that the entire South African rugby fraternity must answer is if the Boks are on the right track? And if by continuing on this track they will not only be competitive in two years’ time, but also be able to field a team that has a realistic chance of winning the World Cup in Japan.
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee believes the loss against the All Blacks doesn’t define the team, that one loss – albeit a bad one – may be something that they never wanted, and that the Boks will learn from thi
“You don’t get defined by one defeat. Even the All Blacks lost to the British and Irish Lions earlier this year... and they didn’t become a bad team,” he said on his arrival back in South Africa.
“We’re being tested in the depth department (following a few injuries) and new players coming in this year, but I believe the progress is still there.
“We’ve had one defeat out of seven (games) and brought two points back home; that’s the story.”
The difference however, was that the All Blacks have a record that doesn’t allow them to panic after one defeat. If anything they have come back stronger since the British and Irish Lions tour and have increased their depth two years out from the World Cup.
One defeat does not define a team, that is true, but what is more important is the response the Boks will put up in the next few weeks.
If their resurgence from the beginning of the year is to be continued, they will need to bury the ghost of Albany as quickly as possible, and put up a performance worthy of the jersey and aspirations of the nation.
The lack of experience and depth in Albany was laid bare for all too see, the question now is what the Springboks will do to make sure this doesn’t happen again on home soil.
Two years out from the World Cup, the Springboks have been brought down to earth with a jolt, given a reality check that few teams ever want to take to heart.
But if they are to get to Japan a more complete outfit they need to do just that. Jake White learnt from the 49-0 loss to the Wallabies in 2006 and made changes – ironically the inclusion of Eddie Jones was probably the biggest masterstroke.
But it took the ability to look inward, make adjustments and bury pride, as well as a bit of luck in the World Cup itself.
Currently it wouldn’t be too wrong to wonder if the current Bok management concentrated so hard on getting the Boks to win again, that they didn’t give enough attention to beating the best in the world. After a season like 2016, it is hard to fault this approach, but two years out from a World Cup, some adjustment is needed.
Some hard choices will need to be made and decisions on whether certain players will develop into stars, or whether overseas options are better, are to be seriously contemplated if he Boks are to close that awful 57 point gap in the long run.
Or else the All Blacks might find themselves without more than one challenger when Japan 2019 rolls around.
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