You have to go back to 2018 to realise just how absurd all the talk is that there are JUST 17 Tests for the Springboks to get it right in their 2023 World Cup defence, writes Mark Keohane. The Boks, at the 2019 World Cup, got it right in their last six matches. Before that it was hit and miss.
Let’s remind ourselves of 2018 when Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber returned to South Africa from Munster, full of growth, confidence and humility; virtues not quite as obvious in 2022.
Erasmus was insistent that the 18 Tests scheduled between the season opener against Wales in Washington DC on the 22nd June and the World Cup opener against the All Blacks in Japan 15 months later would be more than enough for a World Cup challenge.
Erasmus was all about peaking in the play-offs at the World Cup. Back then he said he wanted to be successful in every Test match but he knew he wouldn’t be as he mixed and matched to find the ideal match 23.
The Boks would add a late pre-World Cup warm-up Test against hosts Japan, which took the preparation to 19 Tests. They won just seven of the first 14 Tests in 2018, blew a 30-13 lead against the All Blacks in Pretoria with 13 minutes to go and lost 32-30, and lost by a point to England at Twickenham in the final Test of the season.
Erasmus was not deterred, feeling everything was on track. He had the backing of an executive who believed unconditionally that the Boks would win the World Cup with Erasmus at the helm. So did I.
His Boks won against the All Blacks in Wellington in 2018 when the rugby gods smiled on Erasmus and the Boks. For once the good fortune favoured South Africa. The All Blacks scored six tries to four, threw two intercept passes for Bok tries and watched as Beauden Barrett’s late conversion attempt hit the post to square the Test at 36-all. It was the most significant Bok win, despite how it unfolded and was fashioned, because it allowed a country to believe.
The defeat to Australia seven days earlier in Brisbane was forgotten, as was the hammering against Argentina in Mendoza before that.
Erasmus had targeted an England home series win and one win against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2018. It made his seven wins from 14 Test return irrelevant to his employers and those who maintained he would do the business. I was chief among those.
The 2019 season was indifferent to start. There was late try to secure a 16-all draw against the All Blacks in Wellington and there was the 23-13 first-up World Cup defeat against the All Blacks in Japan.
Right at that juncture, statistically, it looked a mess for Erasmus’s Boks, but there was more to the build than just results, and he was fortunately spared the scrutiny of his predecessors. Erasmus, post the World Cup opening defeat to New Zealand, had won just 10 of his 19 Tests.
Then came the wonder run of six World Cup-winning matches and that is what defined his initial two year tenure.
Equally, what defined 2021 was winning the series 2-1 against the British & Irish Lions. Losing to Australia twice in succession, losing to the All Blacks and losing to England and a first Test defeat to the Lions were deemed irrelevant. The big prize was the Lions.
Perspective people, please.
When I read that 17 Tests is ALL the Boks have to prepare a defence, it is a nonsense. When I read there is no time to blood youngsters, what nonsense. You only have to revisit 2018 and 2019.
The World Cup is a competition won at the World Cup, and not before it. Many a team has flourished for a full four-year cycle, only to come undone in one play-off match. Read the All Blacks in 2007 and 2019 and England in 2019.
When I read that Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw can’t both be considered because the Bok coaches won’t risk two in-form 22 year-old No 8s with the World Cup still 18 months ago, I cringe at the contradiction in talk coming from within the Bok coaching set-up, as I do when I read that a player must have 10 Test caps before the start of the 2023 World Cup to be considered.
What nonsense if you recall 2019, when the most influential trio in the World Cup final, centre Lukhanyo Am and wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe would not have been selected by the very same coaches if a 10-Test pre-World Cup measurement was in place.
Am had played eight Tests when he was picked for the 2019 World Cup squad. He had lost three of them. Kolbe had played nine Tests and lost four of them. Mapimpi had played seven Tests and lost four of them.
Both were running so hot in the final month of the World Cup that it didn’t matter that they had less than 10 Tests each pre the start of the World Cup, no less if they had played 100 times each.
The point is that for a coaching leadership to secure a player a spot 18 months out is asking for trouble; equally dismissing the claims of a player 18 months out.
The Boks, no matter who they pick for the three-Tests against Wales, will win the home series 3-0. The Welsh are currently a mess.
Argentina will also be no more than a contact training session, and then the year starts. The All Blacks, two successive Tests at the highveldt, will be an interesting fortnight because former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will have joined the All Blacks coaching staff. His achievements at Ireland demand respect. He will add structure and rugby intelligence to the All Black approach.
Then it is off to Australia for two successive Tests, one of them guaranteed to be in Brisbane, where the Boks have won once in 28 years.
And then it’s France in Paris and England at Twickenham to round off a year, that could well read very much like the 2018 season in results, when the Boks lost 50 percent of the Tests.
I keep on stressing the point that to publicly cancel any player’s claims now is bizarre and to insist on any player’s virtues right now is as bizarre.
This week on social media, so many have condemned me asking questions about Evan Roos’s omission from an alignment camp and for having the gall to question any coaching duo who won the World Cup and won the Lions series, but that is also the very same coaching duo who have got it wrong as much as they have got it right since their tenure opening 22-20 defeat against Wales in Washington DC.
The Boks in 2018: lost, won, won, lost, won, lost, lost, won, won, lost, lost, won, won and lost. That’s seven defeats and seven wins.
The 2019 two big match ups with the All Blacks did not yield a win and there were three successive defeats in Australia in the 2022 Rugby Championship.
Erasmus, Nienaber and the squad went on a roll after the defeat to the All Blacks in 2019 World Cup opener and it was glorious, but to suggest, as many have, that the duo owe the rugby public nothing in terms of their thinking or can’t be challenged in terms of their thinking is to forget every one of the 13 defeats and one draw since 2018.
Roos: 14 runs, 76 metres, 3 tackle breaks, 62% gainline, 1 offload, 3 bdown steals, 9/10 tackles, 18 ruck arrivals, 1 lineout take, 2 errors
Louw: 1 try, 11 runs, 33m, 1 break, 70% GL, 2 offs, 1 steal, 13/13 tackles, 17 rucks, 3 lineouts+1 steal, 2 errors, 1 penalty
— Zelím Nel (@Zels77) April 11, 2022