The romance among South Africans is that the All Blacks are the biggest rivalry, but when you break it down statistically the most intense Springboks rivalry is with the Wallabies, writes Mark Keohane.
Folklore in South Africa dictates that it is the All Blacks who will always be the greatest foes for the Springboks. Ditto in Australia, where the Bledisloe Cup determines that the most celebrated rugby rivalry for the Wallabies is against the All Blacks.
But the reality is very different for the Springboks and Wallabies when it comes to the All Blacks.
There once was a time when results matched the term rivalry. For the Springboks it was pre 1992 when they led the All Blacks 21-16 in Test matches, admittedly having played more times against the All Blacks in South Africa than in New Zealand.
For Australia, there have been periods where the Wallabies have ruled across the Tasman, and there have been great World Cup-winning Wallabies cycles.
But for the most the battle has been very one-sided, especially since the game went professional in 1996.
The Boks, since rugby turned professional in 1996, have won 15 in 57 Tests against the All Blacks and since 2010 have won just three in 21 Tests. That is not a rivalry; that’s a foregone conclusion if you are a Kiwi.
Equally, with the Wallabies, who have lost the Bledisloe Cup series for 19 successive years and since 1903 have won 45 Tests from 173 against the All Blacks. Since 2010, the Wallabies have won four from 21 against the All Blacks.
It is a fact that the All Blacks have consistently set the standard since rugby went professional. They’ve had the occasional fall-off but no team compares with their winning record and their dominance of southern hemisphere and world rugby.
Which leaves us with the Wallabies and the Springboks.
This was never a celebrated rivalry pre 1992, when the Boks won 20 from 28 Tests, but from 1992-1995 rugby’s new world order included the then world champion Wallabies and they beat the Boks three times in five Tests.
Since 1996, the Wallabies and Boks have played 56 times, including two times at World Cups. The numbers are staggering in how little separates the teams, with the Wallabies having won 27 and the Boks 26, with three Tests drawn.
The average score over 89 Tests is 20-18 to the Springboks and in the three World Cup matches, with two won by Australia and one by South Africa, the points total is 57-55, with all three World Cup matches proving decisive in the context of the tournament.
As for World Cups, the Boks stunned the world champion Wallabies 27-18 in the 1995 opener at Newlands, while the 1999 semi-final between the two teams at Twickenham was among the greatest Test matches I have attended and been privileged to write about.
Jannie de Beer kicked an 80th minute penalty into the wind to tie the match 18-all and then put the Boks ahead in extra time before Matthew Burke levelled matters and Stephen Larkham produced the most sensational drop goal and Burke added another penalty for the Wallabies to win 27-21. There wasn’t a try scored in the 100 minutes but there didn’t have to be. It was a magnificent Test match. The Wallabies would go onto win the World Cup.
The Boks in 1995 also went onto win the World Cup.
The 2011 World Cup quarter-final ended with James O’Connor kicking a late penalty and the Wallabies winning a controversial match 11-9. They would lose to tournament winners the All Blacks 20-6 in the semi-final.
What is significant about the Wallabies and Springboks in the professional era is that the form book gets tossed out the window when it comes to these two teams. Some of the finest Bok teams have been rolled by an out of sorts Wallabies in Australia and equally the greatest Wallabies World Cup-winning teams have come unstuck against some pretty indifferent Bok line-ups in South Africa.
I’ve asked all the coaches of both countries over the years why it is that the two teams so struggle to win in the other’s backyard and none, on either side, has an answer.
The 1995 World Cup-winning Boks lost in Australia in 1996 and 1997 when the quality of line-ups would suggest they would be comfortable winners. The same goes for Rod Macqueen’s brilliant 1999 World Cup winners. They lost 10-9 in Cape Town a few months before winning the World Cup and needed an 80th minute penalty to beat the Boks in Durban a year later. Eddie Jones took over and his impressive Wallabies came unstuck against the Boks 20-15 in Pretoria in 2001 and lost to an inexperienced Springboks in Cape Town in 2002 and 2003.
Robbie Deans won a few Tests in South Africa but also suffered a massive 53-8 defeat and Jake White won a few Tests in Australia but also suffered a massive 49-0 defeat in 2006.
It seems to be a case of the Boks win in South Africa against the Wallabies, regardless of form or team sheet pedigree, and the Wallabies win in Australia, regardless of form or team sheet pedigree.
John Smit’s 2007 world champion Boks came unstuck 21-6 in Brisbane against the Wallabies in 2009, having beaten the All Blacks twice in succession in South Africa and they would beat the All Blacks in New Zealand a week after losing to Australia.
Rassie Erasmus’s 2018 Boks lost 23-18 in Brisbane and a week later beat the All Blacks 36-34 in New Zealand and last Sunday Siya Kolisi’s world champion Boks lost 28-26 on Queenland’s Gold Coast, a month after having beaten the British & Irish Lions in a three-Test series.
A rivalry is about superiority on the field and over 89 Tests and 56 played in the professional era there simply has not been a superiority for either the Springboks or the Wallabies, which makes for a riveting contest because history shows that it is never a given as to who is going to win.
The 2017 season was a case in point. The two teams drew 23-all in Perth and a fortnight later drew 27-all in Bloemfontein.
Statistically, when one talks about Springboks rivalries in the professional age, it doesn’t get closer than against the Wallabies and results in the professional era over 56 Tests support this statement and over the course of 89 Tests it is the Boks who average 19.7 points a Test and the Wallabies who average 17.8 points. Let’s round that off to 20-18, which is less than a penalty.
That is how little has separated these two teams since they first met at Newlands in Cape Town in 1933, and the fact that the Boks won the first Test 17-3 and lost the second a week later in Durban 21-6 was the precursor to a history in which you’d never say with certainty who wins the next one.
This, ladies and gentleman, is the piece that I should have written a week ago.
— Springboks (@Springboks) September 13, 2021
— Wallabies (@wallabies) September 14, 2021