“Winning is winning. We don’t care how we do it.”
That was the common refrain from South African supporters before the World Cup and it remains so today.
Rassie Erasmus’ South Africa are now indelibly etched into the William Webb-Ellis trophy as champions.
The thing is, while you can win trophies, you can’t win legacies. Time and history judges them.
As the smoke from the fireworks at Stade de France disappears and the players give their final interviews, talk turns quickly to World XV sides and assessing the ‘greatest ever’ teams.
It was surprising to see Matt Dawson writing for the BBC say “South Africa are probably the greatest team in the history of the World Cup. I don’t think anyone has got anywhere close to that previously, and given the format going forward, I’m not sure it will happen again.”
His argument is predicated on the fact that this was arguably the closest fought World Cup in history. A tournament where four excellent sides stood out from the rest.
And yes, South Africa found a way to win most but not all of their games in supremely hard fought circumstances.
But that isn’t the whole story. Dawson said as much later in his article when he argued that what made this Springbok side so special was:
“Their unwavering desire to push the boundaries and do whatever it takes to win. There have been moments over the past six years where director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has done things that are unacceptable, but you learn from those mistakes and he never, ever stops trying to work out where he can push things. The detail of the coaching staff around the pitch during the game, analysing everything, is NFL-like.”
It is very hard to argue with any of that. I wrote last week that Erasmus had coached as well as selected within the rules to slow the game, delay restarts and ensure that his side’s greatest attributes of size, power and bloody-mindedness dominated the landscape.
I maintain that it is a style of Rugby that shouldn’t be encouraged and also is counterintuitive when player welfare is front and centre. The authorities must consider whether the laws strike a balance between defence and attack, between all styles of play. Whether as they stand, the laws encourage a side not to possess the ball.
After all, laws are meant to strike balances aren’t they and right now possession rugby is on the outer.
Nonetheless, Rassie was in many ways a genius. He coached within the laws as they are written and applied. It was certainly very effective. But that approach does not win the hearts and minds of most neutrals.
When discussions take place over camp fires or at bars about the greatest sides ever, I’m not sure too many will pipe up and advocate for the South African side that participated in games with endless stoppages and dozens of scrum penalties as well as episodes of ‘kick chasey’.
Talk will turn to Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams running rampant during the 1974 Lions Tour in the team they called the ‘Invincibles’. A team it should be said was fronted by hard, hard men like Willie John McBride and Fran Cotton.
The conversation will no doubt centre on the Richie McCaw led All Blacks that found ways to beat some magnificent sides led by generational players such as Brian O’Driscoll, Thierry Dusautoir, Bismarck Du Plessis and David Pocock. McCaw won 131 of his 148 tests.
It will also be interesting to see whether over time, these Springboks come to be accepted even as the best their country has produced.
John Smit’s Springboks were arguably man for man a better side than this one and played in a Lions series in 2009 that can’t be compared to the awful spectacle dished out in 2021.
To my mind only possibly Malcolm Marx, Handre Pollard and perhaps Pieter-Steph du Toit would have made that South African side of 2007-2009. Even then that would have been at the expense of some outstanding players including Schalk Burger and Smit himself.
Some have already highlighted the fact that having won 4 Rugby World Cup Finals, the Springboks now have the distinction of having not scored a try in 3 of them.
Doing so does nothing to advance this discussion. It isn’t about the number of tries scored or kicks taken for that matter. After all, the final in 1995 was gripping end to end rugby won by a field goal without either team crossing the line.
But from that game at Ellis Park, almost 3 decades ago, I still remember a rampaging Jonah Lomu being dragged down by James Small who is sadly no longer with us.
I remember a guy called Joost, another departed legend, in my opinion the greatest scrum-half of all time, stepping, weaving, passing. Throwing himself relentlessly at Lomu’s legs.
I remember Os du Randt at 130kg playing a whole game and tiring though he was, making a cover tackle in the last 20 minutes.
Not even a week later, I don’t remember many great moments from the 2023 final.
There were plenty of cards, one in particular will rest on the shoulders of a wonderful young man for the rest of his life. Very harshly so.
Of course that isn’t Rassie Erasmus’ doing. The game as it stands today has been taken down a deplorable dead end by the authorities where it died on the hill of player safety but rolled back down again.
It’s slower, arguably more dangerous and less pleasing to the eye despite the fact that there are almost no tight forwards playing 80 minutes like Os du Randt did in 1995 (and remarkably again in 2007).
Rassie did choose to coach and select sides to play the game that way. In many ways he did approach it like an NFL coach and at this time at least, seems very pleased with himself.
However, the game is worse for it. And the legacy of Rassie’s Boks will inevitably be tarnished by it.
Again, while you can win trophies, you can’t win legacies. Legendary status isn’t won. Time and history judges.