Has SA Rugby tempted fate?
OPINION: The game is the ultimate humbler. Rugbypass writer Ben Smith shares his views on Springboks’ chances against the British and Irish Lions.
As much as teams, players and coaches preach about it and try to manage egos, the game itself has a funny way of sorting out those left unchecked.
As the saying goes, fate loves irony.
Consider the back-to-back World Cup winning All Blacks, who, after 2015, were on top of the world having achieved something no other nation had.
And afterwards, they still managed to keep winning, but under public figureheads Brett Impey, Steve Tew and Steve Hansen, there were slight signs of organisational arrogance at New Zealand Rugby [NZR] after a prolonged period of success.
Blaming the Northern Hemisphere nations for the state of Pacific rugby, pointing fingers at the RFU, even turning to the New Zealand Government for handouts to fund the game.
Under Eddie Jones, England had quickly risen from the failure of the pool stage World Cup exit.
They completed a Grand Slam Six Nations title in 2016, followed by a tour Down Under to Australia where they dispatched the World Cup finalists 3-nil.
Everyone wanted to see the all-powerful All Blacks play second-ranked England. It was a guaranteed box office clash, the type that rugby sorely needed.
It could have happened in the November window in 2017, perhaps even 2016, when the All Blacks toured Europe, but the story is NZR wanted a share of the Twickenham gate takings and began a public spat with the Rugby Football Union [RFU] over money.
The All Blacks were the golden ticket they argued, and as such, deserved to get a piece of the pie. Never mind that England had no trouble selling out against anyone. The All Blacks were special and deserved it. High on success, they began to buy into their own hype and try to dictate terms.
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The fans and players were robbed of the spectacle for over two years while the two powers went in separate directions. England put together a record-equalling winning streak, one that the All Blacks could have potentially put an end to.
A new generation of All Blacks were robbed of vital big-game experience against England, who had proved their mettle as one of the top sides in international rugby. Players were denied career-defining experiences.
The All Blacks’ own home winning streak came to an end against the British & Irish Lions in Wellington in 2017, in what ended a drawn series and the sun began setting on a golden era for New Zealand’s national team. A few England players got a taste of defeating the All Blacks on home soil. The aura was fading.
By the time England and the All Blacks played in 2018, the clash of the titans had become something less. England had flamed out in that year’s Six Nations and were dealing with their own form problems.
An offside call saved the All Blacks from would-be defeat in a 16-15 win, but it appeared there was little between the sides. Eddie Jones certainly thought so.
One year out from the World Cup, New Zealand found out they weren’t really ahead of the pack after bullying Australia, South Africa and Argentina for three years.
Perhaps it would have been beneficial to play the best every year, seek out the best, stay humble and keep moving forward. Somewhere along the way they lost sight of that in favour of milking pounds, and in the process, NZR began to tempt fate.
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Fast forward to the 2019 World Cup, and England and New Zealand are drawn in the semi-final. Imagine, then, the egg-face moment for NZR when they are bundled out by the team they snubbed for over two years over a cash-grab.
Completely humbled. Fate intervened to serve the organisation that cheated the game, fans and players. The irony would not have been lost on those at the RFU, and they surely would have enjoyed the handshake from Steve Tew afterwards.
The All Blacks are a first-class sporting team that has been able to maintain incredible standards. To maintain the level of success they had for so long was an incredible achievement.
But, when the organisation running the team starting acting at odds with the team ethos they so dearly try to believe in, well, it was almost destiny and fate found the most ironic outcome with a World Cup exit at the hands of England.
Now turn to the Springboks. The ‘world champions’. The ‘number one’ side in the world.
When rugby was halted in 2020, it wasn’t the pandemic that was touted as the main reason for their shock withdrawal from the Rugby Championship. According to Rugby Australia, they had agreed to attend and were happy with the schedule.
When the backflip came, it was the players ‘not getting enough minutes’ to be ready for test rugby. The old player welfare chestnut.
Well, here we are on the eve of the Lions series and the South Africa Rugby must be pulling the pin any day now, as these players have got nowhere near the required level of play that they needed last year.
Yet we all know that isn’t going to happen, making last year’s spin look dubious at best. According to Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus recently, “We will never not have enough players to play. We will have enough numbers… even if we have to pick a totally new team.”
Ahem. So why didn’t you last year then?
About last year’s dodging effort – no one knows if the players were up for the tour or challenge. Were they asked? It’s hard to see them turning down the chance to play for the Springboks.
The players probably would have stepped up to play for their country, but they also likely didn’t have a say. They were denied a year of their test careers by the withdrawal, and in the process, the SA Rugby started to cheat the game, keeping the number one tag without earning it.
Imagine then, after pulling the pin on your SANZAAR partners and costing everyone millions in the process, then calling up NZR to ask the All Blacks for a match in Dubai because you are desperate for a quality warm-up match; asking them to also ditch Fiji in the process.
Thanks, but no thanks. Good luck against Georgia.
Bad karma seems to be lurking around these Springboks, as after one test against the Georgians, the bubble was broken and the second test had to be called off. Left with no choice but to stack the South Africa ‘A’ side to try and get ready for a test series.
They turned down competition last year and now are now underprepared after an unfortunate sequence of circumstances. How fate loves irony.
It shouldn’t be lost that the Lions are being asked to do most of what the Springboks were unwilling to last year. This series could have played in Europe with crowds, or even in Australia. There were more sensible options.
Whatever was discussed behind closed doors, we now have the situation the SARU wanted, yet at every turn it is unravelling and the challenges to overcome are mounting.
Their bed has been made and now they have to sleep in it so to speak.
If the Springboks go ahead and win this series, it will be a testament to the quality of the playing group to pull together through adversity. It is has become a much tougher ask than it should have been. And in that sense, a series win should hold more merit.
Their reward will be to head down under for two tests each away against the Wallabies and All Blacks.
For their sake, and that of the series, let’s hope their superiors haven’t tempted fate enough to be humbled by the game. The noise is growing louder, the chirpiness is visible on Twitter. Pride is swelling, which generally comes before the fall.
Ask yourself, what would be the most ironic outcome for the Springboks after all of this?