Siya Kolisi and his group of Springboks have taken their place among the greatest Springbok teams in history. And Kolisi also sits at the head table among the finest to have ever led South Africa, writes Mark Keohane.
The British & Irish Lions series represented Kolisi’s coming of age as an international Test captain, but collectively this was the series in which the 2019 World Cup winners announced to the world that they were no one-hit wonders.
To those in the northern hemisphere who attributed South Africa’s emphatic 32-12 World Cup final win against England as England having the worst possible day at the office, the hurt was clear in their prose as they tried to make sense of a Springbok series win against a British & Irish Lions squad the northern hemisphere media felt simply could not lose.
But lose they did and when you unpack just how they lost, it was a case of they got beaten three times out of four in a month of showdowns at the Cape Town Stadium.
These World Cup-winning Springboks had it all to do against the best of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, whose players had completed two Six Nations competitions and an Autumn Cup, while the Springboks had played one Test in 21 months against second Tier Georgia.
The Lions had all the preparation and all the match conditioning because before the SA ‘A’ match, they’d played Japan, the Sigma Lions and the Sharks twice in a week. The Boks, with their second outing against Georgia cancelled because of Covid and as many as 26 players isolated because of Covid, had to make use of the SA ‘A’ fixture to find some form of match preparation, and against every expectation and rationale thinking, they beat the high-flying Lions 17-13.
They did it playing with 13 against 15 for 10 minutes, and they did it without half their Test team, including the inspirational Kolisi and flyhalf Handre Pollard, with the latter two having just two training sessions before the first Test.
That first Test was lost 22-17, but for 20-plus decisions that went against the Boks and two disallowed tries, it would have been a win as comfortable as the 27-9 second Test romp.
The third Test went to the 80th minute before Morne Steyn’s boot decided the result, as it had done 12 years earlier in the 2009 Springboks series win.
Kolisi stood tallest at the end of the series, having led a Bok team deprived of the immense figure of Duane Vermeulen, the 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit and the maverick scrumhalf Faf de Klerk.
The Boks did it so tough, coming from behind at half-time in the final two Tests to triumph.
They did it with the rest of the world seemingly angry that they could actually pull it off, without proper preparation, without the home advantage of playing at altitude, without any home crowd support and without three of their star players.
They also did it with a squad as transformed as was the case in the 2019 World Cup final success.
They did it with a playing and management squad that was representative of South Africa’s wonderful mixture of cultures and races. They did it because Kolisi, the coaches and the players never believed they couldn’t do it.
No Springbok team has ever had to fight such adversity, just to compete against a team that was described as the most competitive group of Lions players in the professional era.
There have been some wonderful Springbok teams in the profession era. The 1995 World Cup winners went 14 Tests unbeaten. The class of 1997/98 went 17 Tests unbeaten and the 2007 World Cup winners, won a series against the Lions in 2009 and beat the All Blacks three times in succession, including the last one in New Zealand. They were great teams, but Kolisi and his men have now put down a marker to be considered the best of them all, simply on the basis of what they had to endure.
They’re a group of players who know how to win and they know how to come from behind to win. They trailed England 24-3 after 20 minutes in their first ever home Test as a group, and won 41-38. They trailed the All Blacks 12-0 after 10 minutes in Wellington, New Zealand, and scored five tries to win 36-34. They created history in becoming the first team to lose a group match and win the World Cup and they are the first Bok team to come from behind in a series and beat the Lions.
The rest of the rugby world condemned them for doing it ugly, but they did it with precision, power, and with the authority of world champions, so much so that New Zealand rugby writer Gregor Paul questioned the rage of the northern-based critics.
‘What is seemingly upsetting everybody is the simplicity of the Boks game plan, as if developing a hugely muscular pack and relying on a contestable kicking strategy is the tactical equivalent of failing to observe a dress code,’ wrote Paul. ‘What’s making the Boks yet more unpopular outside of South Africa is that they are winning the big moments in the big games and have taken a Lions series to add to their World Cup hopes.’
Isn’t that what the best do?
Kolisi’s Springboks have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand, won the Rugby Championship, won the World Cup and beaten the British & Irish Lions. They’ve done it in the space of 14 months of actual rugby time.
You ask what defines greatness, I’ve just described it.
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