TRIPLE CHAMPS: Can the Boks dare to dream of a three-peat?
They’ve already done the improbable, but can the Springboks really dare to dream of doing something that the rugby world is impossible and become triple World Cup winners?
The finalisation of the Springbok management team this week and the return to full-time coaching of Rassie Erasmus has brought up this appetising question, especially given the changes to the management and the prospect, for once, of a full four year cycle.
Having already proved once that the traditional four year cycle is dead and a World Cup can be won in 18 months, Erasmus now has a tough task in crafting the Springbok challenge for Australia 2027 after playing an integral part in the last two World Cup wins.
Both his win as coach in 2019 and Jacques Nienaber in 2023 were against the grain of this traditional cycle that was so believed - before the 2019 World Cup - to be the way to win the showpiece tournament.
The fact that only one other side had got it right more than once with the same coaching team - New Zealand in 2011 and 2015 - underlines just how difficult the task is. Primarily because, normally, few top international players get the chance to play in three consecutive World Cup tournaments.
And even fewer as a group. There is also the demands of international rugby, the tough physical demands that take its toll on players and while the Boks have found an elixir for players like Schalk Brits in 2019 and Deon Fourie in 2021 to play a cameo, they are more the exception than the norm in international rugby.
So the likelihood is that while a number of the double World Cup winning group will go to Australia, a few are likely to fall by the wayside, be it by injury, age or simply form that has caught up to them.
Still, even though that may be diminished the Boks have something the rest of the world, in the current generation, doesn’t - World Cup winning experience. The likes of Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie all should still be there, as should the two scrumhalves in Jaden Hendrikse and Grant Williams.
Those players are likely to assume a more senior role by 2027 and should be the leadership in the team, while a new raft of players are likely to come through the test ranks by then.
The Springboks, especially under Erasmus, have been an exceptional tournament team, and while they have not always got the results between World Cups, the ends almost certainly justify the means.
KEY IS TIMING
The key in both World Cups has been timing. The Boks have navigated a tough 18 months in 2019 to shock the World and then the COVID pandemic, losing a full year of test rugby and a season with tough restrictions to have a shortened cycle for 2023, and by grit and determination they won three back to back games by a single point to claim an unbelievable victory in France.
Other teams will be planning as well, and have their own golden generations that are coming through. Irish Rugby, with its exceptional systems, and now the influence of Nienaber on many of their national players will be a handful, but have their own demons to overcome in World Cup tournaments.
France’s under-20 swept the Under-20 World Championship last year and along with their current galacticos will be keen to make up for the disappointment of 2023. Scott Robertson’s All Blacks are an enigma but are also likely to be strong.
And while players all know in the back of their minds that they may be nearing their sell-by date, the same can happen for coaches as well. As any coach will remind you, there are only two types of coaches - those being hired and those being fired.
That reality is even more harsh in international rugby and reputations count for little when results start going against coaches (just ask Eddie Jones).
And this isn’t even thinking about all the potential pitfalls that can influence a test season, let alone a World Cup cycle.
The truth is, as long as - in Erasmus’ words - the main thing remains the main thing, the Boks will have a chance. With a strong setpiece, physicality up front and a good kicking game, they will have the goods to dominate many sides on the international stage.
A good defensive system will be Jerry Flannery’s task, and he has big boots to fill in Nienaber’s absence. Tony Brown has been described by some as a magician but the continued development of the Boks’ outside backs and the way they strike at top class defences will be closely monitored.
The Boks have also never been shy to think “out of the boks” and to push boundaries where Erasmus has been involved, and with Jaco Peyper involved, that will continue as they look for ways to gain an advantage within the laws that are on the books.
Their first task will be to manage a tough first season - Ireland arrive in two tests and then two more against the All Blacks later. Portugal will provide an opportunity to test new blood but the reality is that if these tests don’t go well, questions will seep in, and the pressure will start to build.
NEGOTIATE THE CYCLE
The real first task for Erasmus and co is to negotiate the cycle, bring through a balance of new players while retaining as much experience that is needed to give the Boks a fighting chance at the World Cup.
Then it becomes an eight week cycle in itself, one where so many sides have seen their cycles overturned by a red card, or the wrong bounce of a ball.
So it may be too soon to start dreaming about a three-peat, but man oh man, you can bet if the Boks are in decent shape when they get onto that flight to Australia, they will have a decent chance.
And who would bet against Erasmus at a World Cup?