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Why Springbok dominance has been cut short in the pro era

There are workhorses, and then there is South Africa's Duane Vermeulen. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Roar Pro
29th August, 2013
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4696 Reads

‘What do you mean?’ is the outcry from all you fans from that very proud rugby rainbow nation. But let’s first look at what some of Test match statistics tell us before we go any further.

Since the dawn of the professional era – which commenced following the epic 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand – you can see from the chart below how much the Springbok winning percentage has declined against both of its Southern Hemisphere rivals.

Another interesting fact to know is that the Springboks actually had a better winning record (50 percent) against the All Blacks than the Kiwis had against them (43 percent) in the amateur era.

This was because of the high proportion (seven percent) of drawn Tests between the two teams.

In addition to this the Springboks remained the only one of the two rugby superpowers that won an away series between them in that period.

This happened after their 2–1 win in 1937 which prompted them to be called ‘the best team to ever leave New Zealand’.

But as you can see, during the professional age (which includes all of the Boks’ post-isolation participation apart from the period 1992-1995), the All Blacks have unmistakably turned this statistic around with a convincing winning 70 percent record against the Springboks.

The All Blacks’ post-RWC 1995 record also includes an inaugural away series win in 1996, as well as, first prize in 11 out of the 17 Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship tournaments contested.

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But, if you ask most Springbok and All Black fans they will still tell you today that these encounters remain the ultimate rugby challenge for them.

Matches that are arguably the equal of an Ashes cricket Test series or a Brazil vs Argentina football international.

For the Wallaby fan, currently facing the prospect of yet another Bledisloe Cup whitewash and the continuation of New Zealand’s 69 percent winning record against Australia, the statistics against the Springboks provide some solace leading into the third round of this year’s Rugby Championship.

The die was cast in 1933 from the very first Springbok/Wallaby series, when the Boks proved that they were the strongest team in the world at that time by winning the series 3-2.

The pre-isolation period ended between the two adversaries nearly 40 years later in 1971, after massive anti-apartheid demonstrations in Australia during that tour.

Test matches with South Africa were then banned for over 20 years because of the Republic’s Apartheid policies, with the Springboks entertaining a convincing 75 percent winning rate.

In the meantime Australian rugby standards were fast improving.

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The 1984 Grand Slam victory marked the watershed of this emergence and which was later followed by Australia’s inaugural World Cup win in 1991 at Twickenham against the home side.

In Apartheid South Africa, after the demo-ridden 1981 tour that divided the New Zealand community, Bok isolation was complete.

South African Rugby continued to focus its attention inwardly on its domestic Currie Cup competition, interrupted only by the occasional game against invitation or rebel teams.

And the South African rugby family understandably maintained its previous perception that the Wallabies were ‘easy beats’.

But this started changing in 1992 after Springbok legend, the Doc (Danie Craven), challenged the then world champion Wallaby side that they needed to beat the Springboks to prove that they were worthy holders of ‘Bill’- the nickname coined by the Wallabies to the William Webb Ellis trophy.

Nick Farr-Jones’ Wallaby side won convincingly 26-3 at Newlands in Cape Town in what was the Boks second game after readmission, having lost to the All Blacks the month before.

That set things straight with Craven and Co, at least until the Boks enacted their revenge during a 1995 Rugby World Cup pool game with a 27-18 win at that very same venue.

This pattern set the tone for the professional era where results have since been about even between the two sides, although at this point in time the Wallabies have an edge over the Boks with a 57 percent winning percentage.

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A big contributor to this increase in the Wallaby winning margin has been its recent record under Robbie Deans, during which they have won nine out of the past 11 tests against the Boks.

Now for some of the theories why Springbok rugby has lost some of its gloss in the professional era:

After many years of isolation it was not unexpected that South Africa would at first struggle (which it did) to return to its pre-isolation standards, having been secluded from advances made in the international game for so long.

After that momentous 1995 World Cup win it seemed that the Amabokoboko (the Xhosa word for Springbok) were well on the road to reaching those pre-isolation levels.

Although many Kiwis may still feel a little cheated after the All Blacks were allegedly food poisoned before that final by a mysterious waitress known as ‘Suzie.’

One common reason given for the Bok decline has been the implementation of the racial quota system, where South African selectors have been required to appoint a certain percentage of non-white players.

Knowing their history, this is understandably a very sensitive subject for South Africans of all persuasions.

Another theory that abounds is that South Africa’s dominance at home in the amateur era was curbed with the introduction of neutral refereeing.

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Many visiting teams to the Republic during the pre-isolation era often highlighted questionable home-town decisions that went against them.

This change to using neutral officials by IRB may have also made a contribution to a declining Springbok winning ratio when it came out of its isolation.

Others point noted has been the the Springboks’ inability to adapt its traditional ten man game plan that proved to be so successful in the amateur era, to the modern game.

“You pick your tight head prop first and then the rest of the team,” was Doc Craven’s well-known selection philosophy.

Huge Bok packs are traditionally supported by superb half back pairings with a penchant to kick instead of involving its back-line.

Successful Bok sides almost always include excellent place kickers who are capable of converting from anywhere in the opponents’ half.

And once the team works itself into the opposing 22 by mostly tactical kicking, it is not unusual for Bok sides to prefer to set up a drop goal attempt before sending the ball out wide.

The Springbok 2007 World Cup winning coach, Jake White, has had the ACT Brumbies playing in a similar fashion with notable success.

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If White has done anything for Australian Rugby, he has identified a dead-eye goal kicker in the African mould in Christian Lealiifano.

Wallaby fans can also now hope that he can assist Ewen McKenzie with finding the Wallabies a Danie Craven-inspired elusive tight head champion prop it so desperately requires.

For the Springboks – I suppose, if it aint broke, don’t fix it.

And who can argue with two World Cup wins in 1995 and 2007 – equal to that of New Zealand (1987 and 2011) and Australia (1991 and 1999).

When trawling though the Test records, I discovered some other interesting anomalies that deserve further forensic examination.

One such stat that struck me was the high proportion of drawn tests South Africa was involved in the amateur era compared to modern times, but that may be a conversation for another time.

I would love to hear what you think about all this stuff.

As 19th-century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) famously quoted:

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“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

See you at the game – in spirit or otherwise.

Go you good thing!