Times they are changing
Sitting at Newlands on June 12 was not a pleasant experience.
It was with mixed feelings as well.
As much as I am a proud South African, I had immense joy for some of the young lads I played with in Ireland – who were on the pitch that day (a 26-20 win by the Irish).
The backlash at Ellis Park was to be expected. However, early on in this past Saturday's game it was evident that the victory in Cape Town was no fluke.
Just to put South Africa's loss into perspective, the Irish Under-20 team also beat their New Zealand counterparts the same day.
Even if South Africa get past the 'shock' loss to Ireland and win the series, we will see that things are changing in the game.
With England having already taken the series against Australia and an injury-depleted Welsh team pushing the All-Blacks close for 50 minutes in both Tests support my view.
Northern Hemisphere countries like Ireland and England have, in the last decade, established academies.
They have put structures and extremely skilled people in place to develop the game from grass root level, through to the junior structures.
You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see it has already started paying dividends.
The academy at Saracens alone produced three players that beat Australia at the weekend – George Kruis, Maro Itoje and Jamie George.
Connacht, traditionally the 'weakest' of the four Irish provinces over the last decade, provided five players out of their academy that are currently on tour with their country's national team in South Africa.
I mentioned earlier that countries like Ireland have extremely skilled and excellent man-managers in place at the academies.
Nigel Carolan is that man at Connacht and players like Robbie Henshaw, Ultan Dillane, Finlay Bealham, Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O'Halloran have all been under his guidance at some stage.
And let me also state unequivocally, all the players mentioned from the teams above are chivalrous, respectful men of substance.
They don't just make them good players, they cultivate excellent human beings!
A country like South Africa will very soon not be able to rely just on the sheer number of talented players coming through to keep them near the top of the game's totem pole.
As always, the public expect the Springboks to pitch up and just dominate physically.
That is a problematic expectation.
To be extremely physical and aggressive, you need to have a mindset in place that does not allow any distractions and a mentality that needs to be in the zone constantly.
As the Boks only came together a week or two before this Test series against Ireland, they had to divide their attention to drilling in the new game plan, team building and the media honeymoon of a new squad, new coach and new era.
Those were just too many things to focus on in a small space of time.
They were just not familiar enough with the new style of play in order for them to focus on being dominant physically.
You could pick up that Duane Vermeulen was carrying ball in the outside 15-metre area a lot more than he has done before. He now even finds himself as a distributor in the midfield every now and then when the ball comes back all the way from being taken to the sideline.
Definitely new to him in the Bok setup.
The Boks lost to a more professional and better-prepared team in Cape Town.
Although the Irish side had plenty of frontline players being ruled out through injury, this squad – under Joe Schmidt – has been functioning together for a very long time.
New players coming in will have been well versed in what they want to do and how to do it.
This loss, on home soil, by the Springboks, as well as the South Africa A team series loss to the England Saxons and the Under-20 team going down to their Argentinean counterparts, clearly illustrates that South Africa need to seriously look at its structures beyond school level.
But it's not that easy.
South Africa has serious variables, which is not a problem in the majority of the top eight countries.
Unless you come straight out of school and into a Super Rugby team within three to four years, it's a tough road to becoming a full-time professional.
Make no mistake, you train like a professional, but the remuneration is not professional. Because of the sheer numbers coming through in South Africa it's a dog-eat-dog scenario.
Take a player like Ruan Combrinck from the Lions. He has been the in-form South African back in Super Rugby and undoubtedly provided the spark the Boks needed this past Saturday to turn that match around.
He was almost lost to rugby!
He had no contract for a good couple of months as a 21-year old and a completely uncertain future. Luckily he was given a lifeline at the Lions and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the other top rugby countries outside of SA, a young player can fund his progression and dedication to training until he is professional by claiming welfare or working a menial job that should be enough to get by on.
In South Africa it's different. You don't work, you don't eat!
Young players not going to university and also not contracted to a union have the option of academies outside of the provincial setup, but these can be quite expensive.
Some players follow the Varsity Cup route, which gives them a great platform to enhance themselves academically as well as have access to a great system – which goes hand-in-hand with the provinces' Under-19 and Under-21 structures.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the interest to study after school.
Garth April is an inspiring example of a player that has worked himself up from the club game – after leading his club, Durbanville-Bellville, to the national club championship title in 2015. Unfortunately those success stories are few and far between.
Often players without a contract are still grinding it out at club level and rarely get the respect to be tested at professional level.
South Africa can start by changing that.
The way in which the Chiefs whipped Wales during a mid-week game also exposed the fact that international teams aren't always better than club and provincial teams.
You have to bring together good players in a short space of time and work them into a functioning unit.
Whereas club and provincial teams have a structure that's been running for a number of seasons – with guys coming in and out.
The Chiefs emphasized that. Although Steven Donald hasn't played a lot this season, he came in for Aaron Cruden and ticked over seamlessly.
It was a similar case when I played for Saracens.
We beat the Springboks in a midweek game back in 2009.
Although it was the first season Brendan Venter took over, the squad had about four months of preparation more than the midweek Springbok team had.
And that was probably the difference in that match.
So to get back to the point I want to make.
As a country we always expect the Springboks to just pitch up and dominate, especially at home.
It's not that easy.
There is to many much that need to come together for that to happen.
The loss to Japan, Argentina and now Ireland at home are not the Springboks going backwards.
It's the rest of the world catching up and becoming more and more professional and prepared.
Bob Dylan summed this up beautifully: "The times they are a changing."
By Ethienne Reynecke
* Ethienne Reynecke is a decorated hooker who played for, amongst others, the Lions, Stormers, Saracens, Connacht and Pau – which has seen him feature in 160-odd first-class matches.