The world champion Springboks were two minutes away from a Grade A season, but still they can take pride from an exceptional international return in 2021, writes Mark Keohane. They started the season as the world’s number ranked team and finished it as the world’s number one ranked team.
In what was an international season that seemed to take forever to start and then forever to finish, it took a 78th minute penalty from England to deny the Boks a third successive Test win of the Autumn series.
Fair play England. Fair play Eddie Jones.
The Springboks had opportunities to win comfortably with a dominant second half display, but two missed penalties and a missed conversion proved costly and there were three other kickable opportunities from which the Boks sought the touchline and the lineout drive. They got one five pointer in return.
There were other chances and with a bit of luck and more conviction in the final decision-making, there could have been a few more tries from the men in green.
But could and if doesn’t count for anything and the winning feeling belonged to England.
I’ve always been a believer that Saturday’s are for celebrating or drowning the sorrows, that Sunday is for rest and on Monday comes the reflection.
So, on reflection, the Boks can finally get their Sunday of rest because never has a Springboks squad had to endure a year as challenging and intense as 2021, in which the Boks played 13 Tests and were on the go from the beginning of June.
They won the biggest series of the year against the British & Irish Lions, beat the All Blacks in Australia and won for the first time in eight years in Cardiff. These were big moments.
Three of the Boks’s five defeats were matches in which the Boks led on 78 minutes, in the first Test against the All Blacks, in the first Test against Australia and against England at Twickenham.
In a year when there is going to be that one shocker, the Boks duly delivered the one mare in the second Test against Australia. But for that one Test, the season would be an A-plus in what the Boks achieved.
The world champions are in a very good place two years out from their World Cup defence. Ireland, France and England are looking very strong and will feel comforted by their Autumn international performances, while Wales, Scotland and the All Blacks will feel the most vulnerable at this juncture, with the All Blacks, in particular, having taken back-to-back beatings against Ireland and France.
Two years out from a World Cup is a lifetime and so much can – and probably will – change before hosts France play the All Blacks in the tournament opener.
Two years before the 2019 World Cup, the Springboks were at their lowest, in performance, in results and in ranking. The Boks were seventh in the world and in 2018 won seven out of 14 Tests in Rassie Erasmus’s first year.
But in that season it was obvious what Erasmus was building among his forwards, the core of whom will be in France to defend the title won in Japan.
The Boks depth among the forwards is exceptional but they have been fragile at halfback and the absence of Faf de Klerk was huge. There is no like for like replacement. Equally, there is no like for like when it comes to Cheslin Kolbe and there is definitely no like for like for Pieter-Steph du Toit. The Boks were without these three superstars for the last 9 Tests of the season.
Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth were colossal all season, while Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert were always prominent. Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, but for one indifferent Test against the Wallabies, looked a class above all opponents.