Rugby Championship wrap: Do Springboks deserve number 1 ranking?
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Durban – Lest we ever doubt just how much the Springboks mean to an ailing South Africa, consider the following about the best rugby team on the planet.
Siya Kolisi’s world champions left South Africa seven weeks ago as the No 1 ranked team on the World Rugby standings, they returned in exactly the same position to an ecstatic audience after a famous victory over the All Blacks, yet sandwiched in between was a month of bitter discontent.
The Boks had arrived in their Queensland bio-bubble fresh from two emphatic Rugby Championship wins over Argentina in Port Elizabeth which had been a crowning glory after their dramatic triumph over the British and Irish Lions.
The consequent expectations were that two matches against Australia would be duly banked as victories to propel the Boks into the Big One — the 100th match against the All Blacks in —incredibly — 100 years from the first time the giants of world rugby had first met.
But history’s script writers were not going to allow rugby fans to sit so comfortably in their armchairs — there were going to be trips to the kitchen to do the dishes ...
The prequel was that the Wallabies beat the Boks in the first match thanks to a penalty goal two minutes from time by a recalled veteran in Quade Cooper, the New Zealand-born 33-year-old who came back from five years in the international wilderness to enjoy a Hollywood-scripted performance to halt a Wallabies slide of three consecutive defeats.
The Boks were subsequently slammed for their over-reliance on the kicking strategy that had served them so well in their series win over the British and Irish Lions, while flyhalf Handre Pollard — one of the heroes of the World Cup final win over England — missed a sequence of kicks at goal and there were calls for his head.
And Springbok fans sank into anguish a week later when the Boks delivered easily their worst performance since being crowned world champions, folding meekly to lose 30-17 and this time there could be no scapegoats because it was collectively a no-show from the Boks.
The sentiment was that the Boks had hit a mental wall after having been in isolation with only each other for company since they first gathered in June in Bloemfontein. And while the geographical location of the bio-bubble switched from the Free State to Johannesburg, then Cape Town before Queensland, the reality was that human beings were, well, being human in that they missed their families, and there were cases of some fathers not having seen newborn babies...
In general, though, there was no mercy spared the Boks and this time — ironically — they were castigated for frivolously deviating from their DNA and passing the ball too often, and looking decidedly uncomfortable in the process.
You can just imagine coach Jacques Nienbaer exclaiming —literally and metaphorically: “We just can’t win!”
The silver lining to the storm cloud that monstered over the Boks was that they were at least now in familiar territory going into the game of the century against their most bitter of rivals. Written off and told they are no good, the Boks always rally when their backs are against the wall. It is for a good reason that rugby’s most infamous cliche is that there is no more dangerous animal than a wounded Springbok...
After 77 minutes of that epic Centenary encounter, the Boks were within champagne distance of glory, only for a discpilnary indisrcection to allow All Blacks fullback Jordie Barrett to boot his team to a two-point win.
Instead of sympathy, mortified South Africans got stuck into their team, annihilating them for an almost crazed obsession with kicking the ball, come what may.
What had happened is the Boks had retreated into their laager after the depressing defeat to the Aussies and had consolidated their belief in a DNA based on hoisting the ball to the heavens and then obliterating the catcher.
And that was fine, except they overdid it. There was a chronic over-correction which saw Pollard and Faf de Klerk still kicking the wretched ball even when the initial tactics had worked a treat and there was now golden opportunity to move the ball to the unmarked wings, the ravenous Makazole Mapimpi and Sbu Nkosi.
And that brings us to the weekend, the 101st match between the Boks and the All Blacks, with so many expecting the Kiwis to teach the Boks a Rugby 101. The New Zealand coach, Ian Foster, spoke about a “Grand slam” of Rugby Championship victories while Auckland’s New Zealand Herald proclaimed that the Boks were “Unfit, unskilled, unnerved”.
And there was a sinking feeling in South Africa that the Boks — having emptied their tank the previous week — would have one foot on the plane and a blow-out was likely...
Only for Kolisi’s men to perform like the champions they are. But even then, they were fifteen seconds from losing yet another cliff hanger.
But the irrepressible Boks forced a penalty from the New Zealanders, kicked it to towards the try line, enforced another infringement from the Kiwis ,and Elton Jantjies kicked his team to a famous victory and yet another chapter had been written in the scarcely believable drama of rugby matches between these countries.
So the Boks return home heroes having been fifteen seconds from being villains.
All of which makes you cherish just how important the Springboks are to a country that is always in need of good news, and it is never short of exhilarating how Siya Kolisi and his men embrace this fact, and the incredible effort they put in to pleasing their country.