How Boks could go from 'average' to 'sensational' in 2022
OPINION: South Africa will enter 2022 as still the world’s best-ranked team, but one looking to atone for what was labelled an average year by coach Jacques Nienaber.
They proved in 2021 to be who they ultimately always were, putting up a respectable eight-win, five-loss season in trying circumstances away from home for most of the year.
The British & Irish Lions tour was not totally joyful for the Springboks, despite winning the series coming back from 1-0 down. The relief at having saved face was probably the overwhelming emotion for them.
When you are expected to win, or expect to win, the feeling of relief is often greater than the joy of winning. It goes without saying that the number one team is expected to win every time. It comes with the territory.
South Africa’s 2019 World Cup success put the Springboks on a pedestal to live up to, and losing their first meaningful action of test rugby since that tournament would have been embarrassing.
We saw behavioural changes manifest in a variety of ways under the pressure. The emotionally charged series spiralled and left the international game in a bitter state by the end of it.
After the Lions series, the Springboks slumped through the Rugby Championship and the wheels came off the cart.
They have not travelled well to Australia over the last 20 years, and this trend continued with back-to-back defeats to the Wallabies – who were ranked seventh in the world at the time – and was followed by a shared 1-1 ledger with the All Blacks.
The Springboks then almost completed an undefeated end-of-year tour, but a last-minute loss to England at Twickenham left the world champions with a 60 percent win rate for the year.
However, 2022 looks far more promising for the Springboks. The expectations have been lowered after 2021, allowing for a renewed focus, while they have been handed a schedule that is favourable.
The Springboks will finally get the chance to reunite with the South African rugby public in July, which will be a magnificent occasion with crowds returning.
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At home, they are a very different beast. Afternoon test rugby in South Africa is feverish that brings the best out of the Boks and, unfortunately for Wales, they are going to be the sacrificial lamb in this instance.
They will likely fight hard, but a series sweep is on the cards. It could get very, very ugly on the scoreboard for Wayne Pivac’s men as the three-test series progresses.
A more expansive style of play with deeper structures is more common of the Springboks when they play at home, and that could be expected against the Welsh.
That should entail more ball-running to find the edges in the midfield zones with far less kicking than last year’s Lions series.
The United Rugby Championship has shown there is incredible attacking talent out wide for the Springboks to potentially call on, with Leolin Zas, Aphelele Fassi and Warrick Gelant all in top form.
If they wanted to play a more expansive running game, the younger talent is there to add to the mix with Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi. It could be as potent a backline in Test rugby, if they want to use it.
In the red zone, the power game will come into fruition and Wales will be asked to deal with forward runner after forward runner coming around the corner – but only if they can stop the rolling maul.
After their injury-plagued and underwhelming Six Nations, Wales will be doing well to keep the games close.
Beyond the Welsh series, the Rugby Championship has offered the Springboks the best chance in a while to capture their first ever full title as the previous home-and-away format has been discarded.
Instead, the Springboks will play the All Blacks twice at home and the Wallabies twice away, with only a home-and-away series against Los Pumas.
This has offered up a golden opportunity to take home the title as they will get home ground advantage in both tests against New Zealand.
Many of Ian Foster’s new All Blacks have never played a Test on South African soil, and if their European capitulation late last year is anything to go by, the Springboks will sweep them.
The All Blacks have never been more vulnerable, with Foster clinging to older players and old game plans, while the side lacking cohesion with the Crusaders-laden contingent.
This isn’t an All Blacks side that can be considered favourites away from home against top tier teams, particularly not against the world’s top-ranked team.
We saw what France and Ireland produced against the Kiwis when they played abroad, and the expectation now is that the Springboks will do the same.
If the Springboks lose any of those two tests at home, it would be a big missed opportunity. If they lost twice to Foster’s side, that would be incredibly fragile and nothing less than a disaster.
The biggest hurdle facing the Springboks is likely to be the Australian tour, a trip of which they have struggled for results in the past.
However, if they can win one of those games, they are looking at five wins from six matches to take the Rugby Championship, meaning this year’s title could be decided by those two games between the Wallabies and the Springboks.
The All Blacks have a slight disadvantage due to their scheduling this season, which sees them travel to South Africa for two tests, host Argentina twice and share home and away matches with Australia.
That scheduling quirk will turn around at some point when the teams rotate through the new travel format each year.
Sitting with an 8-1 record for the year, South Africa would be looking pretty heading into a tough European tour, where they play the two best Six Nations teams, Ireland and France, along with England and Italy.
This year brings forth a chance for South African rugby to truly earn their tag as World Rugby’s top-ranked team, which has been propped up for so long by their cakewalk 2019 World Cup win.
In that tournament, the Springboks required just three Tier One victories: Italy in pool play, Wales in the semi-final and England on the last day.
France has put together an eight-test win streak and won nine of their last 10 tests, with the only relative freebie win over that period coming against Italy.
Ireland, meanwhile, also won nine of their 10 tests in 2021, and have won 13 of their last 15, with their only defeats in that span coming against Les Bleus.
The Springboks are here, ranked at number one on World Rugby’s rankings, after putting together a test season that finished with a win rate of only 60 percent last year.
If there was ever a time to validate that ranking, it’s this year. Should they clinch a 3-0 series win over Wales in July, a Rugby Championship title after sweeping New Zealand, and finish with statement victories over Ireland and France, it will be well earned.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass