Cape Town - Cast your mind back to the overwhelmingly bleak Springbok landscape of last year.
Just after the 2017 Rugby Championship, in which the Boks ended third, how many of our national players would have broken into the All Black first team?
New Zealand had won the title again by a landslide - including a six-out-of-six record for themselves - and beaten old foes the Boks by a sobering, record 57-0 in Albany and then 25-24 in a mercifully more competitive dead-rubber affair at Newlands.
At the time, South Africa would have boasted only one genuine shoe-in figure if you’d picked a combined bilateral XV: that fast-emerging powerhouse at hooker, Malcolm Marx, who had been quite immense in the Capetonian clash.
A New Zealand sports website bestowed the rare honour of a “perfect 10” to the Lions-based player on their performance assessment afterwards ... and that at a time when the All Blacks’ own premier figure at No 2, currently injured Dane Coles, was in the thick of the action himself.
Perhaps only Eben Etzebeth, of established Bok players, might have challenged reasonably seriously for a berth in a combined outfit; he had re-announced himself in a big way at Newlands after the collective Albany horror show.
The Springbok side of that period contained such names as Ruan Dreyer, Uzair Cassiem, Francois Hougaard, Courtnall Skosan, Andries Coetzee and Raymond Rhule, all of whom have slipped right out of the subsequent Bok frame, never mind harbour any credentials for breaking into the All Black juggernaut team.
Which only highlights further how the two bilateral tussles of 2018 - both widely-acknowledged classics, and split 1-1 - have helped redress the imbalance so much.
Let’s not forget just for a second that a southern hemisphere XV based on the latest Championship would still, and quite rightly, be quite heavily dominated by All Blacks. Taken on tournament fortunes as a whole, that would only be right and proper.
But the two SA v NZ battles (36-34 Bok win in Wellington, 32-30 All Black revenge in Pretoria) were nevertheless characterised by a whole new, seemingly fearless and less overawed mindset by a host of Bok players who went thrillingly toe to toe with the world champions.
Especially eye-opening at both the “Cake Tin” and then Loftus was the manner in which Bok backline play looked unrecognisable from the mess it had been in when the two nations locked horns in 2017 (Boks packs seldom struggle to be at least competitive.)
While a certain porousness remains defensively at times - it rained tries across the board in the two meetings - various Springbok back-liners were suddenly matching highly-touted All Black foes for confidence, trickery, shrewd option-taking and the ability to punch holes over the advantage line.
So if you had to pick a combined South Africa-New Zealand XV strictly based on the players on show across the 160 minutes of combat between them in the just-completed Championship, a considerably wider list of Bok personnel than at the same time last year would be right in the frame.
I have taken the liberty of some cheeky positional tweaks, like moving Aphiwe Dyantyi to right wing to allow him to still be paired with Rieko Ioane as the wide fliers, and lock Sam Whitelock grabbing the No 5 jersey (he operated at four in both Bok Tests this year, though he would switch anyway for NZ when compatriot Brodie Retallick is available again).
There were some borderline cases: fullback Willie le Roux, over two good showings, could easily have pipped Ben Smith, who played only at Loftus in that particular jersey, Damian de Allende was a strong possibility at No 12, Handre Pollard ran Beauden Barrett desperately close although the latter’s attacking genius simply cannot be under-valued, and Steven Kitshoff might well have commanded the loosehead prop spot had he not lost some lustre after Wellington.
Here is that combined side (reminder: picked entirely on impressions made in either or both of the Wellington and Pretoria Test matches, not general reputation or other Rugby Championship fixtures this year):
15 Ben Smith (NZ), 14 Aphiwe Dyantyi (SA), 13 Jesse Kriel (SA), 12 Ryan Crotty (NZ), 11 Rieko Ioane (NZ), 10 Beauden Barrett (NZ), 9 Faf de Klerk (SA), 8 Kieran Read (NZ), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit (SA), 6 Siya Kolisi (SA), 5 Sam Whitelock (NZ), 4 Eben Etzebeth (SA), 3 Owen Franks (NZ), 2 Malcolm Marx (SA), 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe (NZ)
If a joint-All Black and Bok side was assembled based on fuller reputation, and not curtailed to the ding-dong bilateral events of Wellington and Pretoria, my choice would almost inevitably lean a fair bit more heavily toward New Zealand players.
Waisake Naholo, Jack Goodhue, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and others would be quite likely to nudge out certain South Africans named above - although Duane Vermeulen would also enter the radar as an additional, proven world-class Bok contender at loose forward.
But the exercise still demonstrates, I believe, that several Boks have moved much closer again in pure quality terms to direct All Blacks foes ...
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