In October 2015 South Africa were 80 minutes away from having the chance to win a third world title, but less than two and a half years later the Springboks were in disarray.
Allister Coetzee endured a woeful tenure upon replacing Heyneke Meyer, overseeing just 11 victories in 25 Test matches. An inauspicious start produced a record for the most defeats South Africa have suffered in a calendar year as they lost eight of his first 12 matches in charge in 2016.
That stretch included their first ever defeat to Italy, maiden losses away to Argentina and at home against Ireland and their heaviest beating on home soil when they went down 57-15 to New Zealand – a year later the All Blacks reproduced that tally to nil for the Springboks’ worst ever defeat.
Coetzee was unsurprisingly dispensed with at the end of 2017 and Rassie Erasmus added the responsibilities of head coach his to his director of rugby role, immediately acknowledging the huge task he had in order to turn things around.
The rebuild got off to a strong start as newly appointed captain Siya Kolisi, the Springboks’ first black skipper, led the team in a 2-1 series victory over Eddie Jones’ ailing England in June, with both wins seeing them display immense character to overturn hefty first-half deficits.
— South African Rugby (@Springboks) June 23, 2018
While there is understandably renewed positivity, thinking about another deep run at the 2019 Rugby World Cup would be extremely premature.
Bryan Habana, part of the side that finished third in England three years ago, says the focus must be solely fixed on the impending Rugby Championship, which he believes will give a true indication of what can be expected from the Springboks in Japan next year.
“A year out from the World Cup it’s always difficult to get excited,” Habana told Omnisport, speaking courtesy of Coco Fuzion 100.
“I think for Rassie he’ll be looking short term and the Rugby Championship will be a pretty big status point in terms of where the Springbok side is in terms of the quality of opposition they’ll be facing in New Zealand and Australia and Argentina, who have the Jaguares who went on a four-win streak of Australasia in Super Rugby.
“So the Rugby Championship will be a bit of a marker in terms of where they’re heading and I think there’s a lot of positivity, but I think one can only evaluate and make some clearer indications post the Rugby Championship.”
Under Coetzee South Africa won just three of their 14 matches away from home, only one of which came in the Rugby Championship when they beat Argentina 41-23 in Salta in August 2017.
Having been victorious in their most recent series on home soil, they will be confident of getting off to a strong start against the Pumas in Durban on Saturday.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus adressed the media during lunchtime at the team hotel in Durban on Monday. “The Boks are looking forward to fine tune their preparations for Saturday’s Test against the Pumas.” #LoveRugby @Official_Bozza @MTNza pic.twitter.com/fA25HiJv6s
— South African Rugby (@Springboks) August 13, 2018
Erasmus’ men then face a tricky trip to Mendoza for his first away Test at the helm – their 22-20 defeat to Wales took place in Washington DC – which represents the next challenge in the head coach’s restoration job.
If South Africa can provide an improving Argentina, defending champions New Zealand and Australia with much sterner tests on the road, Habana will be far more confident in their standing among the tier one nations.
Asked what would constitute success for the Springboks, the former winger said: “The last couple of championships, getting record scores against New Zealand at home and away, not being able to win a game away from home – there’s quite a few.
“I think being able to beat Argentina up first and then going to Argentina and trying to win, and then going to Australasia and being a force to be reckoned with, trying to push Australia strong and show that we can fight with the best in the world on their turf.
“Obviously given that the World Cup is in Japan next year, you know you’re going to be on foreign territory and being able to know that you can do well is going to be really important.
“So that experience of being able to enjoy positivity overseas, and then coming back to South Africa and trying to beat Australia and New Zealand, which we haven’t been able to do for the last two years.
“[There are] a lot of challenges and post-Rugby Championship a clear indication of where exactly they stand will be able to be made.”
It is hard to argue with that assessment.
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