Johannesburg - Before the kick-off of the World Cup warm-up game between Ireland and Italy at the weekend the Irish commentators were still talking about the Springboks as their team’s likely opponents in the World Cup quarterfinal round.
That was after the All Blacks were outplayed by Australia, but before the Springboks destroyed Argentina, the team that knocked Ireland out of the last World Cup in 2015, on their home field. What would the Irish be saying now? We actually do know what they are saying. As one website put it: “The Springboks are frighteningly awake... Their forwards are ferocious”.
That’s stating the obvious of course, with the Boks having clinched the trophy that reflects southern hemisphere supremacy, now known as the Rugby Championship, in fine style with their 46-13 win. That went with an away draw against the All Blacks and a comprehensive win over Australia in their opening game. As it turned out, that opening fixture was between the two best teams in the competition.
Ireland's role in South Africa's resurgence
But back to those Irish and their forecast of a meeting with the Boks in the play-offs that now looks far less likely than it did a few weeks ago. Remembering of course that the Boks play Ireland if they finish second in the pool behind New Zealand, which is no longer something anyone should bet their worldly possessions on.
If the Boks do end up playing Ireland in the first play-off game, and they win, the Irish should consider their own role in sparking the Springbok resurgence. For the heart of the Bok success is built around the professional edge to the coaching set-up that has been brought by head coach Rassie Erasmus and his long-time assistant Jacques Nienaber.
Both those coaches will tell you they experienced a significant lift in their coaching careers in their time with Munster, the Irish provincial team. When Erasmus arrived back in South Africa to take up the position of SARU director of rugby, he wasn’t shy to say that having coached in Ireland he now knew that South African rugby wasn’t really professional.
That is something that will be repeated by just about any former or current player who comes back from a stint overseas. Indeed, in researching a book that will shortly be released, what became apparent to this scribe was that many ex-Boks believe that South Africa has a coaching problem, and someone like Fourie du Preez would tell you he learnt more in a year in Japan than he did in virtually his whole career in South Africa.
You’d hesitate before suggesting that Jake White, the most recent World Cup-winning coach, wasn’t a proper professional coach. White might actually be a better international coach than a club or provincial coach, but he has still measured up well overseas. He has walked the walk at all levels. White may even be partly responsible for the improved Wallaby forward performances for it could track back to what he started with the Brumbies way back in 2013.
Local coaches grow overseas
But for the rest? My money says that if you asked Nick Mallett he’d tell you that rugby was really still amateur when he was Bok coach in the late 1990s and 2000 and his first exposure to proper professionalism was when he coached in France after his stint with the Boks. He was successful there and probably became a much better coach, only South Africa never got to benefit from it.
Heyneke Meyer hadn’t coached at the top level for several years when he took charge and might now be a better coach after working in France than he ever was at the Boks, and former Bok assistant Johan van Graan has probably up-skilled himself several times over working with Munster.
His role as assistant to first Meyer and then Allister Coetzee pre-dated the growth he would have experienced in Europe, and Coetzee, now that he has had extended exposure to the Japanese variant of rugby professionalism, is probably a better coach now than he was with the Boks, too.
Could it be that the Springbok resurgence, which has been quite incredible if you consider where they were when they were beaten 57-0 by New Zealand less than two years ago, is rooted in the fact that for once the Boks have that rare thing they have seldom had in the past - a properly professional coach?
Boks now strong in key areas
The current Bok team inhabits a different planet to the one they did after that Albany nightmare, and yet so many of the core members of that squad are still members of this one. What can that be attributed to other than coaching?
What is undeniable, is that the Boks are the undisputed current kings of the south. They scored 11 tries across their three matches, and along the way they made some significant progress in areas that are crucial before a World Cup - their defence is dominant, their pack is indeed formidable, but as significantly, given the nature of World Cups, the halfbacks are cooking.
Handre Pollard led the way in Salta with his 31 points and suddenly he is looking the prodigious talent he threatened to become when he made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2014. Elton Jantjies was good against Australia and will probably get an opportunity to build that confidence further when the Boks play their farewell match on South African soil ahead of the World Cup, in Pretoria on Saturday.
Faf de Klerk still fluffs some kicks but has long been the established No 9 and there are no concerns there, nor over his back-up, the exciting Herschel Jantjies. For good measure throw in the now-matured talent that is Cobus Reinach, who is likely to start against Argentina in Pretoria this week, and the Boks can breathe easily when it comes to back-up in a key position.
Regular captain poised to return
There’s plenty for the Boks to enthuse over elsewhere. For instance, lest it be forgotten, the Boks played the World Championship without their regular captain Siya Kolisi, and yet there was never any question of the loose-forwards being caught short or the leadership falling short in his absence.
Kolisi played for Western Province at the weekend and his return to the mix should be imminent. Elsewhere, such as wing, there are also players set to return to the selection pool. Yet while Aphiwe Dyantyi can’t be ignored, and you could also make a very strong case for Sbu Nkosi, it would seem hard on the incumbents Cheslin Kolbe (and what an inspired selection that has been) and Makazole Mapimpi to leave them out given how well they have played. Ditto for Kwagga Smith or for the even more influential Francois Louw on the side of the scrum.
We should see Marcell Coetzee and others get a proper opportunity this weekend, perhaps Vincent Koch in the front-row too, and brilliant though Franco Mostert was in Salta, Lood de Jager will always challenge when he is fully fit and has his momentum.
Malcolm Marx is still regarded by some as the best hooker in world rugby and yet Bongi Mbonambi was outstanding when he got his opportunity to start in Salta, Trevor Nyakane has progressed to an unbelievable extent, Frans Steyn looks committed and still has his magical touches and will not let the team down.
The bottom line of all of this is that Erasmus has options and is arguably going to the World Cup with the best prepared squad since… well, since White’s squad won the World Cup in 2007. In fact this squad might have something on that one in the sense that they have just had a dry run mini-final, as the Salta game was a competition decider and the Boks dealt really well with the pressures created by the massive expectations from back home.
Much has been written over the years about the impact the Bulls and Sharks’ success in the 2007 Super 14 season had on that year’s World Cup effort. But in reality it was only the Bulls who got the experience of winning a final. For the Sharks, who were nearly men and lost a game they should have won, that Durban decider would not have been a good rehearsal for the World Cup final they played five months later.
No-one will pretend the Rugby Championship measures in the same league as the World Cup when it comes to importance, but Duane Vermeulen, the skipper, had it right after the win in Salta when he spoke of South Africa as a country that thrives on confidence. And confidence is something the Boks will have in abundance now.
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