Will the 'real' Springboks please stand up?
OPINION: So, it took nearly two months for the world champion Springboks to lose their number one tag since they started playing again.
Holding onto their truncated Rugby Championship title is also looking highly unlikely as the All Blacks only require a losing bonus point to win back the silverware.
Although many in South Africa are “shocked” the Springboks have been humbled at the hands of Australia, this is who they are and have always been. Only time was required to unwind the notion that they are any different.
When have they ever travelled well, particularly to Australia? When have they ever been dominant over a full Test year in the modern era? Perhaps the 2013 side was the last one, despite losing twice to New Zealand in that year.
For this current group, when have they ever put together a prolonged run?
Their statement: The British and Irish Lions series started with a first-up loss in only their second Test as World Cup champions, which, to their credit, they fought back from to win the series.
Was it convincing? Not in the slightest.
It is unfortunate the way these players have been built up to something they are not, and now they have been torn apart by their own quite quickly.
They were 50 percent in 2018, with seven wins and seven losses. It only took two wins out of three games to take the truncated Rugby Championship the next year.
The tier one sides they beat at the World Cup were Italy, an injury-ravaged Wales, and England on the final day. Japan, not receiving official Tier One recognition from World Rugby, were their quarterfinal opponents.
They are 25 percent against the All Blacks since 2018, having won one from the last four, but all of a sudden they are supposed equals?
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This side was suddenly billed as a great one on the back of a nice tournament run. The fallacy with the World Cup is that it is the be all and end all and ultimately determines the best side in the world.
In reality, putting together a winning record of at least 80 percent in a non-World Cup Test season is magnitudes more difficult and a far greater achievement, but it would never get the credit it deserves.
What is harder, playing Japan, Wales and England over three consecutive games, or facing the British and Irish Lions three times, then playing Argentina, Australia and New Zealand twice each, followed by Wales, Scotland and England on an end-of-year tour?
South Africa’s 2021 season is a far greater ask than their World Cup campaign in every way, shape or form, even more so because they had to prove they were the best this time.
In 2019, they didn’t have any great expectations placed on them. Even in the final, England wore the favourites tag after knocking out the All Blacks. Flying under the radar provides less pressure.
The weight of expectation is a heavy burden to carry, which we can see has lumbered these Springboks.
At every turn the players now look to the ref for answers, pleading for calls to go their way. They act confused when they don’t, brows furrowed, hands in the air, heads shaking.
The negative body language on the field is plain as daylight to see. They just can’t believe that call just went against them.
You wonder if Rassie Erasmus’ example has set in the rot. The moment he made it all about the ref, the players got a green light to do the same. Can they be held accountable for ill-discipline now when they can just question the ref’s call?
There are many Springboks out there who are obsessed with one man wearing white. That is where the answers lie. The ref isn’t seeing the right call. Why isn’t he seeing what I see?
We know this Springboks group have been obsessed with the officials since they admitted publicly they role-played interactions in team meetings during the World Cup.
They psychologically profiled the likes of Jerome Garces in order to actively seek to influence over him.
It is ironic that the Springboks themselves aren’t interested in a fairly officiated contest as they have been trying to swing calls their way the entire time through influence.
The All Blacks aren’t going to give a rats about the referee. At the end of the day, if they lose it’s down to what the 15 men on the pitch have done. They go out there to do what they do, and if it doesn’t work, they look in the mirror first and find something else that will.
The 100th test between the two great rivals has lost some of its lustre, although the game itself will no doubt be a quality affair as the Springboks will rise to the occasion. They absolutely have to.
Now that the pressure of being the best is off their shoulders, their backs are against the wall, their pride is swelling, their egos are bruised, they will come out full of heart and perhaps make a contest of it.
But, if this is what it takes to get the best of the Springboks – embarrassment, shame and losses – they were never mentally ready to be number one. Make no mistake, the Springboks can win this game, but they have already been exposed for what they are.
The number one team doesn’t wear the underdog tag, unfortunately. They wear expectations, and large ones at that. The losses to the Wallabies show this side can’t rise for every challenger.
The good news is it they are not as bad as they are being made out, but were also never as good as they were pumped up to be. Even a win against the All Blacks won’t change that now as the illusion has been well and truly dispelled.
It doesn’t feel right to call them world champions anymore, it should just be the World Cup holders from now on. It was two years ago, everyone has well and truly moved on from 2019. It’s time to look forward, not back.
And that starts this week when hopefully the World Cup holders show up to play the world’s number one team.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass