Warren Whiteley and Ross Cronje’s Springboks shares rose even more in their absence as the Boks comfortably beat France in Johannesburg to secure a three-nil series win.
Whiteley, as he had done with the Lions, immediately galvanized the 2017 Springboks. He led though an infectious enthusiasm, with calmness and also with skills more associated with loose-forwards from an era where rugby was a sport and not a business.
Whiteley is an outstanding Super Rugby player and in this first season as Springbok captain he was equally impressive as an international player. He played well and led well. His unavailability for the series finale was made easier because there was no significance to the series result, but the significance was that it immediately gave the Springboks a different feel – and it’s one that was less exciting, inviting and imposing.
Sharks youngster Jean-Luc du Preez was efficient as a No 8 but he was not Whiteley. The two have different skills and the Springboks, against France, were more potent with Whiteley’s skills at No 8 and Du Preez playing as the big blind side loose-forward ball carrier. This allowed for one of Siya Kolisi or Jaco Kriel to play to the ball.
The Springboks in the third Test win were forced to rejig the back row combinations because of Whiteley’s late withdrawal but it was a reminder that three good individuals don’t necessarily make as good a combination.
Kriel, Kolisi and Du Preez all enjoyed good individual matches but they lacked that something extra we saw from a Bok loose-trio built around Whiteley in the opening two Tests.
Cronje, at scrumhalf, was another whose importance was emphasized in his absence.
Cronje’s skill set is understated but hugely effective. He may lack the maverick presence of Francois Hougaard and Faf de Klerk, but Cronje is currently the best exponent of scrumhalf play in South Africa. He does the basics well, reads play exceptionally and Elton Jantjies, at flyhalf, looks decidedly more settled when Cronje is on his inside.
The Whiteley, Cronje and Jantjies axis worked a treat in the first two Test wins, but there wasn’t the same fluency or authority from Du Preez, Hougaard and Jantjies as a collective.
The Boks won easily and they were never troubled in the Test series.
France were outmuscled, outthought and outplayed.
You can only beat who is in front of you, and the Boks can only be judged on who they have played.
Just how the Boks will shape against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championships is something we will only know once those first round games have been played.
What the Boks did achieve against France was to reignite the optimism of the South African sporting and rugby public. They played with vigour and they played with respect for each other, the jersey and the paying and supporting public.
For this they must be applauded.
*This article first appeared in Business Day Newspaper