They say when you hit rock bottom there’s nowhere to go but up. Certainly, the last few seasons of international rugby have seen the Boks hit new lows that fans would never have fathomed.
The 2007 World Cup victory, and historic 2009 season (which brought a Tri-Nations trophy, All Black whitewash and Lions tour victory) seem like a lifetime ago. Test rugby has changed, and South Africa has failed to adapt to a game that has seen previous “minnow” nations not only surpass them in world rankings, but also inflict shock defeats with increasing regularity.
Indeed, the once proud aura of the mighty Springboks has diminished to a faint glow. The 2009 vintage Boks et a benchmark that has fallen further out of reach with every subsequent season since.
Pieter de Villiers never really functioned as head coach, and instead served as a figurehead which oversaw a team largely ran by veteran campaigners. His tenure derailed after the dream 2009 season, and we crashed out the 2011 World Cup.
Enter Heyneke Meyer, who was touted as the messiah for a Bok team that was in freefall. He managed to restore a winning attitude and enjoyed several classic encounters against the All Blacks, but his over-reliance on an ageing core of seasoned Boks proved his downfall in the 2015 World Cup, which saw a historic upset by Japan in the opening match.
Heyneke Meyer (AFP Photo – Lionel Bonaventure)
This proved to be the start of many shock defeats for the Boks, who under Alistair Coetzee suffered historic losses on home ground against Argentina, historic point margins against the All Blacks, and a first ever loss against Italy.
By 2017, Northern Hemisphere tours were no longer realistic grand slam opportunities, but were instead a nervous wait to see which team would collect the next Bok scalp.
No longer do the Boks command respect like the days of yore. Instead, like an ageing prize fighter turned barfly, we lament how we once had class, how we were once contenders, while the rest of the international stage looks on with pity. Rassie Erasmus has inherited a herculean task; to rebuild a team in tatters, and to restore pride in a tarnished brand.
I won’t touch too much on last week’s Test against Wales in Washington DC. The true test of mettle was going to be this opener against England. After 18 minutes of play, the Boks found themselves trailing 24-3, and another embarrassment seemed inevitable.
Somehow, momentum shifted, and several key members of this proud Bok team can be counted among the ones who turned the tide. The explosive Faf de Klerk, who was unceremoniously dumped from the 2016 Springbok line-up altogether, played with an infectious ferocity.
He was courageous in defence against bigger opposition, and he galvanised the team with his relentless energy. His distribution was speedy, keeping the defence on edge and creating crucial holes.
Faf’s effort was exemplified around the 60-minute mark, where he tackled the big England No 8 off the base of a scrum in their 22, and somehow found himself down the other end of the field, again making a crucial tackle again on a bigger man, followed by forcing a turnover at the ruck!
New Boks coach Rassie Erasmus. (Photo By Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
After the horror seasons fans have endured the past few years, it is reward enough to merely see a Bok team play with heart and intensity.
I was pleased to see the players picking each other up with a renewed positivity, surrounding one another with congratulations when we won key turnovers, made big tackles and scored tries. This created belief and carried into other aspects of our game.
The defence, while shaky in the opening quarter, gradually became more impressive throughout the game. There was a pack mentality to our tackling and rucking, which led to crucial turnovers from poached balls or successful counter rucks.
The forwards were industrious, with Duane Vermeulen, Kolisi and Snyman as standouts. Vermeulen was a juggernaut, taking several high balls, making big hits, and requiring at least three English defenders to take him down whenever he had ball in hand.
Offensively, we impressed with ball skills not displayed by a Springbok team in recent memory. The ball was taken at pace, rather than the lumbering one-off pick and go strategy of past seasons.
Previously, flat balls to players coming at speed usually ended with a knock on. However, it was reassuring to see that we consistently distributed the ball to players who were moving at pace, rather than passes to stationary players standing at depth.
Our backs and forwards were carrying the ball in both hands to keep the opposition guessing, and offloading in the tackle to keep the attack alive. RG Snyman’s perfectly timed pass out wide to Dyanti was not something I would have expected from a Bok forward, who are traditionally more intent on going forward than distributing the ball.
The skills displayed by Sbu Nksosi were exemplary, with a deft grubber leading to his first try. Quick hands were also on display during his second try, when Le Roux expertly drew in two defenders and swung a wide pass, which was quickly popped back inside the Nkosi.
Most impressively, our offensive kicks during this match were strategic probes aimed at taking advantage of space, rather than a primary gameplan sacrificing precious possession.
A careful analysis will need to be made in order to correct the defensive lapses that led to England taking such an impressive early lead.
Unfortunately, against a team like New Zealand, such momentum would be hard to reverse, and we would do well to avoid repeating an opening quarter like that again. There was some soft defence on display during Brown’s first try, and Pollard will no doubt receive stern wards for his effort.
Courtnall Skosan of South Africa (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
The Boks will also need to realise that they very much let England back into this game during the last ten minutes. The insistence to play defensively during the last quarter of a match when we are leading is a spectre that still haunts Springbok mindset.
Furthermore, the strategy of substituting a replacement flyhalf with five minutes to go continues to baffle. To expect any meaningful benefit in replacing such a key position at such a crucial time defies belief, and Jantjies will need to elevate his effort in the future. His attempted tackle during England’s last try was lacklustre, and with players like Faf and Nkosi displaying such intensity we can reasonably expect that laziness won’t be tolerated in this squad.
Rassie has hopefully ushered in a new era of Bok Rugby. The old guard is gone, and whatever strategies previously implemented were found lacking time and again.
Against England, the forwards boasted traditional Bok strengths of hard hits and true grit, but finesse as well.
Our backline, though inexperienced, also showed promise. One game does not a dynasty make, however there was cause for celebration in this classic comeback victory.
There is a long way to go before next year’s World Cup, and much more to prove from this young squad, but for once I can see myself looking forward to an upcoming Springbok match.