Most interesting week of RWC build-up ahead
Five tries to the Springboks, a second half where the All Blacks never scored a solitary point - South African fans could not have asked for a much better start to the Rugby World Cup year than the one that was delivered at the weekend.
Of course there is fine print you need to observe before letting euphoria completely get the better of you after an opening week of the Castle Lager Rugby Championship which ended with the Boks enjoying a marginal lead in a shortened competition. Fine print such as that the All Black side that was so flat in Buenos Aires and should really have lost to Argentina was an experimental side.
That as so often is the case with New Zealand, they played poorly, and at a difficult away venue at that, and still won. That signifies that they retain their winning habit, which is so crucial at this juncture of a four year World Cup cycle. You also need to note that the Bok performance came at Emirates Airlines Park, where the South Africans always seem to grow an extra arm and a leg, and a venue where the Wallabies have made a habit of losing since before anyone under the age of 56 was born.
Also the Bok performance was some way short of perfect. In the sense that in the first half the defence creaked a bit and the Aussies could conceivably have gone to the break with a 10 point lead had they taken the gilt edged opportunities they were presented with.
But that fine print urging South Africans to keep a seal on the feel good factor that has suddenly swept through them doesn’t really reveal anything we wouldn’t have known already or anticipated. And there are counters to the predictable urge to keep feet firmly lodged on terra-firma, such as that they were far from full strength themselves and yet scored their biggest win over the Wallabies in ages.
THE BIG REMATCH
Nonetheless, it is wise to retain some equanimity, at least until after the Boks have passed the biggest litmus test they face before the World Cup itself - Saturday’s appetising rematch with the All Blacks in Wellington.
We describe it as a rematch because the South African win at Westpac Stadium will still be fresh in the memories of New Zealanders. The All Blacks don’t lose at home often, at least not to an individual nation (the British and Irish Lions are not an individual nation), and that rare reverse in the city that houses the New Zealand rugby headquarters will still sit in the craw.
They didn’t quite avenge that defeat when they played in Pretoria three weeks later either. Yes, the All Blacks won that game by scoring tries late in the game, but no-one who watched that game would have been fooled, least of all the rugby wise Kiwi public - the All Blacks were outplayed for most of the way.
That is why this is the most important week of the rugby year outside of the World Cup itself.
CONFIRMING ALL BLACKS ARE MORTAL
Another big performance from the Boks against the All Blacks on their home ground will go some way towards confirming that the world champions are sliding back to more mortal status from the lofty heights they have inhabited in the past decade.
Talking of the past decade, it was 10 years ago, 2009, that the All Blacks had to correct their game after being whitewashed 3-0 in what was then the Tri-Nations by a Springbok team coached by Peter de Villiers and captained by John Smit.
It could be that the Boks of 2019 might have to repeat that feat. If they win on Saturday, and then again in their opening World Cup pool game in Yokahama, my money would still say they’d have to then beat the same New Zealand team in the final in order to win the trophy. The chances are they will get through the other side of the draw regardless of what happens against the Boks.
Which does introduce a few questions, such as how important is it really that the Boks win the pool game, given that this is not really a year where the South Africans are presented with a low road and high road scenario as was the case when Kitch Christie coached them to World Cup glory in 1995.
LESS OF A LOW OR HIGH ROAD AT THIS WORLD CUP
The difference back then was between playing England in the quarterfinal or what was then Western Samoa. Now it is between Ireland and Scotland. Yes, Ireland are on paper and the form of the past few years the more dangerous team, but if you ask Bok coach Rassie Erasmus he’d probably say he knows Irish rugby like the back of his hand after coaching Munster and does not fear their national team.
The answer to the question may be that it is not as crucial to win the pool game as people are making it out to be, and the Boks should be wary of making the same mistake that Rudolf Straeuli did in 2003 by setting up one team and game - back then it was England - as a mini-final. As players who played in that 25-6 defeat in Perth 16 years ago will tell you, they woke up the morning after the defeat thinking “What now?”
WHY BOKS MUST BEAT ABs BEFORE RWC PLAY-OFFS
Erasmus is too streetwise and clever to do that, but what he will probably consider a priority is that they win one of the two games that the two teams play against each other in the next two months. They need to do that to keep the self belief against the Kiwis that they would have picked up last year after two seasons where they suffered successive 50 point defeats under a different coach.
That’s why Saturday is so crucial. The World Cup pool game will remain important and still be considered the big match, at least of the initial phase of the tournament, but a win at Westpac Stadium will tick a box and render the Yokahama game just a little bit less life and death as it might otherwise have been. A positive result will mean the Boks go into a potential final against their arch rivals with belief regardless of what happens on 20 September.
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP DECIDER
The All Blacks play the Wallabies after this and the Springboks go to Argentina but this weekend is also probably the Rugby Championship decider and the game that will determine which nation represents the biggest Southern Hemisphere threat at the World Cup. Argentina did well against the All Blacks but they still lost to a weakened Kiwi team on their home soil, while the Wallabies, although they did show brief moments of promise, were outplayed in Johannesburg.
You don’t write teams off after one match but it is hard to see the Wallabies breaking the trans-Tasman hegemony that the All Blacks have enjoyed in the Bledisloe since goodness knows when. But the Wallaby need to respond and the Puma need to respond does add to the intense interest of the coming week. They play each other on Saturday too.
And neither of them have the counter argument that both the South Africans and the New Zealanders have to any flaws in their game at the weekend. Those two nations both fielded their best teams. The Boks and All Blacks didn’t. There’s a fresh Bok team waiting for the rest of the squad in Wellington, and the All Blacks went to Argentina sans their experienced Super Rugby winning Crusaders players.
NEW AND OLD STARS
It all adds to the intrigue and the interests, as does the fact that the South Africans are the squad which has made the biggest early statement and on the early evidence has the most vibrant competition for places within the group.
The new star to hit the Rugby Championship firmament at the weekend was the Springbok scrumhalf, Herschel Jantjies. The old returning star to show he still has it after an absence was also a South African - Frans Steyn, though actually you can take your pick from a couple of players.
WEEKEND CASTLE LAGER RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP RESULTS
South Africa 35 Australia 17
Argentina 16 New Zealand 20