The haunted UK rugby media remain tortured that the Springboks beat the vaunted British & Irish Lions in the three-Test series earlier this year and are urging Scotland and England to learn from Australia in how to play against the world champion Springboks, writes Mark Keohane.
It is going to be 12 long years for these boys and girls watching the Springboks play because they can never get back the series-losing result.
And a glance at their reflection on the Springboks win against Wales highlights just how much it continues to hurt that the Bok juggernaut marches on, boring to them, but brutally beautiful to every South African each time the Boks win.
At what point will it be possible to watch South Africa again without wondering: should the British & Irish Lions not have beaten them? Yes, this may well be the reflection of a somewhat twisted mind who endured, close up, the hopes and dreams of those 2021 Lions being snuffed out in a soulless, empty Cape Town Stadium over three consecutive Saturdays in the summer. And yes, I know, there are already South African readers rushing for their laptops to tell me to get over it.
Yet there they were again, back on UK turf on Saturday, pretty much the same Springboks who had led the Lions to their demise, and from start to finish it felt like the infernal Yogi Berra quote: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
At your own peril do you play the Springboks at their own game. You front up and you fight and you may win respect and, briefly, have spectators’ hearts in their mouths, but inevitably the Springboks will put you to the sword.
It seems incredible that they are still doing it. We are three months on from the third Lions Test and the Springboks have not let up. They have been playing ever since. They went from the Lions into consecutive Saturdays against Argentina, then two weeks of quarantine in Queensland before two Tests each against Australia and New Zealand.
After barely a week at home they are now on their autumn tour. Yet, despite the nonstop grind, they still manage to drag their opposition into the closing minutes and find the spirit and accuracy to apply the final blow. Maybe, by the time they reach their last leg of 2021, at Twickenham in two weekends, they will have blown themselves out, but there is no sign of that yet.
Here in Cardiff they were the same as they were against the Lions — and yet better. The Lions’ hope in Cape Town was always that their fitness would tell, because their great fortune was that the Springboks they faced hadn’t played international rugby for 20 months.
Will a northern hemisphere team actually test the Springboks in a way that doesn’t play straight to their strengths? Australia did, in the Rugby Championship, and won two from two.
There are two games left in the Springboks’ long year. First up, on Saturday, are Scotland. With Russell at the helm, you feel they will ask the appropriate questions.
Then comes the 2021 Springboks’ curtain call at Twickenham. There are England fans who don’t wish to attend that final game because they fear a Lions rerun, in particular the attritional, low-entertainment rugby. There are others who do want to go, largely in the hope of revenge for the Lions.
Either way, we know what the Springboks will bring. And we know that, here in Europe, it is still working.
South Africa are not a great side, but they are extremely tough to bear. When Wales held them for three quarters of the game they had nowhere else to go, and even their famous driving maul was pretty well checked.
Kwagga Smith and Bongi Mbonambi were tremendous, but Herschel Jantjies and Handre Pollard were non-existent as attacking springboards. The side’s focus and execution got better when Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch came on for the last quarter. It was then that they looked far more at ease and dangerous. England, however, have every chance of a win at Twickenham this month.
Wales even led 12-9 at half-time and their defensive organisation was so good that, one splendid break by Damian de Allende apart, South Africa never looked like scoring a try.
The South Africans came out steaming for the second half, thundering at Wales in unholy alliances of backs and forwards, but the Welsh ability to turn the ball over kept them out for the first ten minutes. After Francois Steyn, now decades past his best, had messed up a move with a prop impersonation, South Africa infringed again and Biggar made it 15-9 with another penalty.
They led 18-15 deep into the final quarter as Makazole Mapimpi was recalled for offside after crossing the line. But then Marx scored under the driving maul when they finally got up to speed, snatching the game from red hands.
Wales produced their best performance against one of the southern hemisphere big three since beating Australia at the 2019 World Cup, as they pushed South Africa all the way at the Principality Stadium.
Wayne Pivac’s men led until the 73rd minute thanks to five Dan Biggar penalties, before the first try of the game from replacement Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx proved decisive.
The world champions upped their game after trailing 12-9 at half-time and Wales spent most of the second half heroically keeping them at bay until the breakthrough arrived.
But there is no question the Boks were rattled in a way many had not foreseen after Wales’ heavy defeat against New Zealand last weekend, with the margin of victory far smaller than most had predicted.
Doubtless Wales, back close to full-strength, will be frustrated at missing a golden opportunity to claim such a huge scalp.
But undoubtedly this performance, while an 11th defeat in 20 matches under the command of Pivac, represented considerable progress on the All Blacks massacre.
It was still defeat in the end though, the first time the Springboks had won in Cardiff for eight years.
Maybe life after AWJ might truly not be OMG. In the absence of their stricken talisman – Alun Wyn Jones, the almighty lock who might never play again – this was a huge and courageous Welsh bounce back after their humiliation against New Zealand seven days before.
It was a defeat – the first to South Africa at home in eight years – but, without reverting to cliche, there were positives to take. At the very least, a new leader emerged and the timing was so appropriate regardless of Jones’s career-threatening shoulder injury. Jenkins, 28, was reincarnated in exactly the same stunning brilliance.
Perhaps the Church Village disciple might not be the only person who wished the last few years did not happen, but as far as pressing the play button after such a long and painful pause, the flanker’s reappearance for his country only served to show what has been missed in this time.
ALSO ON KEO: