Culture of success can maintain SA’s status as World Cup country

football30 October 2023 07:54| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Rassie Erasmus © Gallo Images

When the Springboks get to the next Rugby World Cup in Australia in 2027, they would have been champions for eight years and it will be easy for both them and their supporters to feel entitled, and the pressure will as a result be huge, but there is no reason they can’t make it a hat-trick.

It was this scribe who at the post-match press conference after the 2019 final in Yokohama asked the coach, Rassie Erasmus, the question that sparked an answer that was spread all over social media that week: “Are South Africans going to have to wait another 12 years for the next World Cup win?”

That was the sequence back then - a win in 1995, another in 2007 and then 2019. Once every 12 years.

The Boks have of course now answered the question in pleasing fashion for South Africans.

It has changed from 12-year increments to four. Put another way, South Africans can work on experiencing the kind of riotous celebration that followed the 12-11 win over the All Blacks this past weekend and the 32-12 win over England in 2019 once every four years.


It can happen, but maybe we need to go back to Rassie’s answer to that question asked at the Yokohama Stadium in assessing how it can be done.

His response was to quote the number of days that remained to the start of the British and Irish Lions series scheduled for 2021.

In other words, he was remaining goal orientated, and taking it one step at a time, rather than looking ahead to France 2023.

Looking at it from the vantage point of Japan 2019, a Lions series win appeared to be a good thing to aim for to create the building block for the next World Cup.

What we didn’t know then though was that the world was about to be turned upside down by the Covid pandemic, which ended up having a severe impact on not only the Boks’ buildup to the Lions series, but also the entire four-year World Cup cycle.

It is impossible to speculate on what the Bok team might have looked like in the Lions series had the national team played in 2020 rather than sit out.

Unlike other international teams, they were forced to sit out because the pandemic lockdowns were more severe here than many other countries.

Rugby players’ bodies weren’t conditioned for the contact that their sport entails after spending months locked up at home, where at best they had the use of an exercise bike and home gym equipment.

But it is reasonable to assume that the evolution of the Bok game that was accelerated in the final year of the cycle may well have started then, and the Boks might not have gone into the Lions series effectively straight off the win in the 2019 RWC final against England.

Yes, that is what it was, the only game they had together between Yokohama and the South Africa A game against the Lions, where the Bok team played for necessary preparation purposes, was the game against Georgia in Pretoria.

There were supposed to be two games against Georgia, but the second one was cancelled when Covid ran through the visiting squad, and the South Africans had Covid issues of their own.

History reflects that the Boks won the Lions series, played in a spiteful atmosphere, employing pretty much the same players and the same game-plan that won them the 2019 World Cup.


The Lions win, being a once-every-12-year event, was a massive achievement given how inactive the Boks had been.

They were playing against players who had been less impacted by Covid lockdowns and were in action in 2020 rather than sitting out.

But while the tight win was great for the confidence of South African rugby, the Boks were unable to do what many of us implored them to do in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 final: They didn’t win championships in the years in between World Cups, something which has been a failing of South African rugby since the start of the professional era and the inception of the annual Tri-Nations and then Rugby Championship.

New Zealand, Australia and Argentina played a Tri-Nations in 2020 in South Africa’s absence, while in 2021 the Boks were disadvantaged by having to be in quarantine for two weeks after arriving in Australia, where the Rugby Championship was staged that year.

In 2022 the Boks looked poised to win the Championship when they opened with a big win against the All Blacks in Nelspruit, but then blew it the following week when they lost to the same opponents in Johannesburg.

That return game was arguably sacrificed for the need to experiment - it will be recalled some changes were made that many felt were unnecessary - and because the All Blacks picked up a try-scoring bonus point, the Boks were left chasing the Kiwis.

Needing to win by a massive score against the Pumas in the final match in Durban, they fell just short.

The Boks set themselves the target of winning this year’s truncated Championship but at the same time, coach Jacques Nienaber was prioritising the creation of depth.

He selected a mix-and-match combination for the opening game against Australia in Pretoria, with the first-choice players going straight to New Zealand.

Having not played an international game since the previous year, and with the All Blacks fielding pretty much the team that won them their opening game against Argentina, the Boks were found to be rusty and the Kiwis exploited that in the opening 20 minutes.


With no Lions series looming in this next four-year cycle, there will need to be a more hard-core and focused approach to winning the Championship trophy as a necessary step to preparing for the next World Cup defence or, to put it differently, the quest for an unprecedented hat-trick of titles.

The Boks have now won more World Cups than any other nation, and clearly that means they know how to play tournament rugby.

But this past World Cup did underline the point made by those who argue that it is folly to prepare for a seven-week event that is four years in the future when it can be so dependent on fate and luck.

The Boks were deserved winners of this World Cup for the way they dug in against outrageous adversity, but they will be the first to admit that they could so easily have been out at the quarterfinal and semifinal stage.

As Ireland and France, who dominated the sport in the last year or so, found out at this World Cup, no matter what you do it does come down at the playoff stage to what happens on the day if teams are relatively evenly matched.

And if you look at the ages of the Bok players who won this World Cup, the South Africans won’t have the same level of experience of what it takes to win World Cups available to them next time around.

There wasn’t one member of the pack that started the final under the age of 30, and the same can be said for the halfbacks.

When it comes to the latter, the experience picked up at this World Cup by Manie Libbok and by the young scrumhalves could be crucial in Australia in four years' time.

But Libbok is also an interesting case in the sense that his rapid progress this year gave the lie to the commonly held perception that you have to have pivots who have played more than 40 or 50 international games at a World Cup.

Libbok, who is just 26, appears to have solved the thorny succession planning issue that appeared to be brewing in the all-important flyhalf position, and there are other young players, such as Jordan Hendrickse of the Lions and Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu at the Stormers, who could be ready to play a role for the Boks in 2027 if they get games between now and then.


South Africa certainly has the depth in most other positions, and depth was one of their big strengths at this World Cup.

What other nation would be in a position to ignore the talents of Andre Esterhuizen, for example, and get away with it?

Esterhuizen is a reminder that there are many top players campaigning overseas, but South Africa’s switch to the northern hemisphere when it comes to franchise rugby, should play a positive role in accelerating talent given the different playing styles and conditions that are encountered in both the Vodacom United Rugby Championship and the Champions Cup.

There is plenty of talent in this country, and someone like Evan Roos will surely come through as a world-class replacement for Duane Vermeulen and challenger to Jasper Wiese in this next cycle.

What may be needed if the Boks are going to be successful in Australia though is for the culture of success that for the class of 2023 was inspired by being RWC and Lions series winners being continued by attaining success in the annual Rugby Championship.

In order to give it their best shot in 2024, whoever is in charge of the Boks will be well advised not to make wholesale changes too quickly, but to embark on a more gentle bleeding-in process where newcomers are introduced around the core of the existing team.

If they can manage that, and Erasmus, who is so organised and forward thinking when it comes to succession planning, does look likely to still be involved at least for the next two years, then there’s no reason why the Boks shouldn’t make this nation’s status as World Cup Country more permanent.

After all, the 43-million population the first World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar referenced after the Ellis Park final in 1995 has now swelled to 62 million, and the off-shoot of continued World Cup success is that the sport is now embraced and played across all racial and cultural groups.

With the franchises becoming more professional, and proper funding now coming into the likes of the Stormers through good equity deals, there is no reason why South Africa can’t build a substantial lead when it comes to numbers of World Cups won, as well as attain success in the in-between years.

The one will be a necessary stepping stone for the other.