The Springboks are the most successful team in World Cup history. Why on earth would you want to change a formula that is unmatched? asks Mark Keohane.
The Springboks surpass the All Blacks in terms of World Cups because their three titles have come from two less tournaments. The Boks, because of sporting isolation, did not play in the inaugural 1987 and 1991 World Cups, won by the All Blacks and Australia respectively.
The Springboks won the World Cup on debut in 1995, won it in France in 2007 and made it three triumphs in Japan in 2019.
The Springboks, in the professional era, have also won the two most recent series (2009 and 2021) against the British & Irish Lions and whenever a Bok coach has gone back the primary basics of what has always made Springbok teams powerful and imposing, the success has followed.
The very best Springbok teams have never veered away from this physical application of genetics but equally never shied away from playing some of the most expressive and brilliant rugby.
The Springboks in 1995, dazzled Australia with a complete game in the tournament opener, cut Samoa to pieces in the quarter-final and then played near perfect play-off rugby to win the semi-final and final.
Fast forward to 2007 and Jake White’s World Cup-winning Boks put 50 points past Samoa in the tournament opener, scored 60 against the USA, beat England 36-0 in an incredible performance, scored 37 points to down Fiji in the quarter-final, hammered Argentina 37-13 in the semi-final and then played with discipline and to the occasion of a final to beat England 15-6.
The final, as a spectacle, was always going to be an arm-wrestle and the Boks showed the necessary maturity to win.
White’s Boks in 2004 put 40 points past the All Blacks in Johannesburg, with centre Marius Joubert scoring three tries.
In 2019 the Boks recovered from a tournament opening defeat against the All Blacks to approach each match as a knockout occasion. They were magnificent in scoring lots of tries and points in dispatching Canada, Italy and Namibia, colossal in how they beat Japan by 23 points; a Japanese team that had upset Ireland and Scotland and had the support of the world going into the quarter-final.
The Boks then adapted to a game plan to beat the ever-present Welsh in the semi-finals before producing one of the most complete performances in a final to humiliate England 32-12.
In the recent Lions series, the Boks came from behind in both of the last two Tests to reverse a first Test defeat and win the series 2-1. They relied on the strengths of their players, which was a powerful forward pack, calm halfbacks, the best defensive midfield in Test rugby and a back three that could turn the rare mistake into a try on the counter attack. It is what every coach would sign up for from his players, if they had them at their disposal.
The Bok teams, since the game went professional, have dominated the Test scene and at times fallen woefully short because of poor selections, inadequacies among national coaches and a deviation from what makes the Boks one of the game’s all-time great teams.
The Boks may not always be the prettiest on the eye, but as England coach and former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones once famously remarked to the Springbok players, when he worked with them at the 2007 World Cup: ‘If Australia had your pack and Fourie du Preez at No 9, you’d never know who played 10 for Australia.’
Jones educated the Bok players to be proud of their rugby heritage and to continue to be the best at what they do. He felt the players and coaches to a degree had been duped to play a supposedly more ‘attractive’ brand of rugby, which was foreign to their natural approach to the game.
‘You are a passer and you want to be a runner, but you are here to pass and you are a runner and not a passer, so run,’ was just one of the things he reinforced with the players.
Jones took a similar approach when he inherited an England team that crashed out of the 2015 home World Cup in England before the play-offs as coach Stuart Lancaster tried to play a more expressive ‘All Blacks’ style game.
Jones took England’s forwards back to their core DNA of physicality and a strong 10 kicking game and in the 2019 World Cup semi-final destroyed the All Blacks, who were light on physicality and too caught up with the idea that a new age version of the game did not involve a set piece or collisions.
In the context of the Boks, what the South African players had to add to their raw physical attribute was rugby intelligence and on-the-field functional intelligence. The very best Bok teams, like Nick Mallett’s 1997/1998 squad that won 17 successive Tests and the Tri Nations, had this and this always translated into some of the most vintage rugby.
The Boks of that era put away France by 50 points in Paris, scored 68 against Scotland at Murrayfield and repeatedly hammered inferior opponents. However, they had the intellect to match their brawn to do the double over Australia and the All Blacks.
And in one glorious evening in Pretoria, in 1997, in his last Test in charge, Carel du Plessis’s Boks scored 61 points against the Wallabies, with Percy Montgomery electric at outside centre and Andre Joubert majestic at fullback.
Other Bok teams have been as good when trusting their instincts and applying this discipline and intelligence to their approach. The 2009 Boks crushed the All Blacks two-nil in South Africa, were good enough to win the first two Tests against the Lions and that squad era also scored a record 42-6 win against England at Twickenham. They also beat the All Blacks in New Zealand.
The Rassie Erasmus Springboks also came from 24-3 down after 20 minutes to beat England 41-38 at Emirates Airline Park and scored five tries against the All Blacks to win 36-24 in Wellington, New Zealand.
There was nothing boring or unattractive about those results.
There was nothing boring about Pieter Rossouw scoring four tries against France in Paris in 1997 or Chester Williams scoring four tries against Samoa in 1995 or Bryan Habana scoring a record-equaling eight tries at the 2007 World Cup and there has been nothing boring about Makazole Mapimpi’s 15 tries in 17 Tests and Cheslin Kolbe’s electric try-scoring burst in a Bok jersey.
Daily Maverick Sports editor Craig Ray detailed how complete the Boks have played since Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber took charge in 2018, with the evolution of the squad taking shape in 2019. He also made the point that there had been no matches for the 2019 players to evolve because of Covid and that the only logical and rational and intelligent approach to beat the Lions was to minimise risk, apply every basic forward strength and take every counter attack opportunity. And kick your points. That pretty much summed up the recipe for a series win against the Lions that was crafted in the mind as much as it was delivered with physical presence.
The Boks, since 2018, have scored 99 tries in 30 Tests and conceded 51. More significantly is the statistic since the coaching duo settled on the core group of players: The Boks have scored 62 tries in 16 Tests (4.8 per game) and conceded just 13 tries (0.8 per game). The Boks have also scored 31 tries in 11 Tests against Tier 1 teams.
Compare that to Warren Gatland’s coaching career with Wales and the Lions (over three tours). Gatland’s teams averaged 2.2 tries per Test. In Gatland’s nine Tests at the helm of the Lions, in 2013 (Australia), 2017 (New Zealand) and 2021 (South Africa), the Lions scored 12 tries.
Those aiming missiles at the Springboks style of play do it out of fear and hope that the Boks will default to an inferiority complex and adjust to an unnatural playing style to please the view of the world.
But those days are long gone.
The Boks should puff their chest out and raise their arms as champions because they are being true to everything that makes them champions and makes them such a difficult team to beat.
My message to the Bok coach, the National Director of Rugby and the Bok captain is to keep on trusting what is working and not be affected by agenda-based critique, which is written and said out of envy for the Bok formula and not concern for the well-being of the game and satisfaction of the broadcaster when it comes to viewership numbers.
The only number that counts is the one on the scoreboard and while the Boks remain true to their DNA, that number will more often than not favour the men in green and gold.
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If you want to know just how many wonderfully skilled players have made their mark on Test rugby with the Boks since 1992 and how many huge wins their have been, My Chosen 23 takes you on a trip down memory lane.