Boks @ No.1: It is just an illusion
OPINION: You would think the Springboks had been the best team in the world for the last 10 years, with the way the rhetoric has been since their World Cup victory two years ago.
A model of consistency, a team that wins at home and away by resounding scores over their top rivals, cementing themselves as historical greats with an extended period of dominance.
The World Cup victory was well-deserved, albeit aided by fortune.
After losing to the All Blacks in the pool stages to secure a quarterfinal against Japan, they beat an injury-riddled Wales by three points to make the Final.
The demolition over England was their crowning achievement of that campaign.
At the right time, at the right moment, they toppled Eddie Jones’ men to take the Webb Ellis Cup.
You play the hand that is dealt and that is what tournament rugby offers. The Springboks took full advantage. It is by no means the full body of work that earns the right to be called the best team indefinitely.
They are rightfully World Cup holders, but this era of Springboks rugby hasn’t proven to the world they are anything but a good side who won the World Cup with a helpful schedule.
The first world champions to lose a game in the World Cup tournament and win it, after about a year of playing well. The last calendar year with a full slate of games against tier one opposition in 2018, the side finished with a 50 percent win rate.
The other title they won in 2019 does little to bolster their world-beating claims.
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They took their first Rugby Championship title in 10 years in a truncated version as they drew with New Zealand, beat Michael Cheika’s downtrodden Wallabies and defeated Los Pumas.
It was an easy layup when everyone’s focus was on Japan.
It was a title that they were unprepared to defend in 2020 back on a full schedule, backing out of the competition – while perennial underdogs Argentina fronted up with nothing but slim hope amid chaos.
Los Pumas, a squad ravaged by COVID-19 and forced to spend months away from family in the lead-up to the competition, achieved a slice of greatness by pulling off a historic win over the All Blacks against all odds.
The challenge was enormous and the odds of success looked low, but they took on the challenge anyway like a fearless competitor.
Where were the world champion Springboks when the lowly Pumas could front with no games since the Jaguares last played?
Were they worried the shine of their world champion status would have rubbed off with a pasting at the hands of the All Blacks?
Or worse, a loss to the Wallabies in Australia, where the Springboks have a horrendous record over the last 20 years?
As it were, the All Blacks were not anywhere near their potential in 2020 and the Springboks missed a golden opportunity to put one or two over them and bolster the standing of this era’s legacy.
After all, we’ve only seen one win over New Zealand from four attempts during Rassie Erasmus’ reign as head coach.
Their administrators were thinking preservation, not on how to further their World Cup win and cement a historic period for Springboks rugby.
Yes, the hurdle was high to jump over, but they decided not to try. Sadly, that decision was a little weak that showed fearful thinking – hardly that of a champion mindset when you compare what Argentina overcame.
The Springboks have ducked competition and hid since winning the World Cup, trying to prop up an illusion that this side is the best team in the world instead of making that a reality with a bold 2020 campaign.
A Rugby Championship title win, away from home, would have this side on the path to becoming one of the all-time great Bok teams. Instead, they dodged the opportunity in the interests of preservation.
You could argue the Springboks’ preparations for the Lions tour are as bad, or even worse, as that of what was asked in 2020 for the Rugby Championship, yet there is little chance we see them pull out due to concerns over player welfare in test rugby this time.
The problems are now compounding for the Springboks as they’ve had hurdle after hurdle to jump over to try and prepare for test rugby, with talks of warm-up tests being an inter-squad hit out. It is not an envious position to be in.
The rugby world is watching, waiting for this so-called best team on the planet to front up. They’ve had the rankings frozen for them to try and preserve that aura that only exists in their own mind around holding the number one ranking.
Frankly, there wouldn’t be a top five international team that believes the Springboks are the best team in the world. They are a good team that got their act together after being clapped for a good two years by everyone from here to Timbuktu.
Heavy defeats to New Zealand – 57-0 in Albany and 57-15 in Durban – were followed by a 38-3 roasting by Ireland in November 2017.
Italy, a team that hasn’t won a Six Nations game since 2015, even notched a maiden win over the Springboks beforehand.
Granted, that is in the past. They got their act together and became one of the top teams, played unrelenting defence, scrapped and fought their way back.
But it would be folly to say there is a gap between them and everyone else. We haven’t seen it yet. We haven’t seen them dominate for any period of extended time.
The rest of the pack would love the chance to play these world champions. The Lions are the team that have that assignment, and have already seen tougher under Gatland.
The 2017 All Blacks – coming off back-to-back World Cup wins, undefeated at home in eight years since 2009, boasting a 90 percent win rate – were the most formidable opponent you could ask for. Undisputedly, the best team in the world without a rival.
The Lions fronted up, drew the series and ended a 47-game home winning streak after being down 0-1 after the first test.
The Springboks lost at home just three games ago, haven’t played in two years, won’t have any crowds and have a host of key players racing the clock to be fit.
If you could pick between the 2017 All Blacks and 2021 Springboks as touring opponents, you would take the 2021 Springboks every day of the week.
That’s not to say it will be a walk in the park by any means, but if you think the experienced Lions players haven’t had tougher opponents, you are kidding yourself.
Quell the talk of a Springboks whitewash – just win the series. That will be enough to add some merit to being the world’s best, but that is just the first building block.
Win away from home with regularity against Australia and New Zealand and add a couple of real Rugby Championship titles to the trophy case.
Go to Europe on an end-of-year tour and sweep everyone. Put together a solid two-or-three-year stretch as a dominant team.
Prove your mettle, and then the rugby world will give you credit as the world’s best. Earn a place in history with prolonged success rather than a questionable flash-in-the-pan World Cup win and then hiding away for two years while everyone else got on with it.
The real test as the world’s best has yet to begin – playing as world champions, as the hunted rather than the hunter. Deal with building depth, injuries, form drops, bad games and still being able to win and maintain success.
Right now, South Africa are the World Cup holders who beat up England on the right day.
It was an inspirational moment and wonderful occasion for their country. They have basked in that glory for as long as you could have asked. But the world’s best team isn’t one that last played in 2019. Time doesn’t stand still for anyone.
And we will soon find out whether this illusion is real or not.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass