Now they're in New Zealand the Springboks can truly focus on defending their crown.
One thing that did not encumber the Springboks of 1995 was two weeks of sponsor commitments prior to the start of the World Cup. There will have been a collective sigh of relief from the 2011 squad when their flight to New Zealand took off on Thursday. No more mean, moody and magnificent expressions for the camera and no more attempts to avoid the excessive food and alcohol of yet another eve of departure dinner.
From now on it’s mostly rugby for the next six-and-a-half weeks and, unlike nations such as Namibia, who are just happy to be part of the show, the Springboks really should be involved for that long. They play their first game against Wales on September 11, two days after the All Blacks open proceedings against Tonga. Their last should either be on October 21 or 23, the respective dates for the third-place playoff game and the final.
Despite the fact that South Africa are the defending champions, the draw for the World Cup has done them no favours. The other three groups all have a fairly obvious divide between the top two and bottom three, but the Boks find themselves in a group with four contenders for two quarterfinal spots. And it doesn’t get any easier at quarterfinal time, with the Boks likely to face either Australia or Ireland. Win that and it’s probably New Zealand in the semi-final and who knows who in the final or the playoff.
In both 1995 and 2007 there was what Kitch Christie referred to as a high road and a low road to the final. The late lamented coach of the 1995 side put everything into beating Australia in the opening pool game, a result that meant avoiding another super power until the semi-finals. That was the high road. If the Boks had lost they would have had to beat England in the quarters and New Zealand in the semi-finals. Instead they faced Samoa and France.
Jake White’s team was even more fortunate: the draw enabled them to win the trophy without facing either of their fellow Tri-Nations teams. By contrast, the 2003 draw put South Africa in the same pool as England, the eventual champions, and finishing second doomed the Boks to face the All Blacks in the quarters.
This time there is no high road. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that the defending champions might fail to reach the quarters at all. A bad day against any two of Wales, Samoa and Fiji could see them flying home early, but there is too much talent in the green and gold to allow that scenario. So assuming that they qualify they will face either Australia or Ireland in Wellington.
Before Springbok supporters start wringing their hands like Lady Macbeth, it is worth noting that the seedings for the 2011 tournament have produced banana skins in all four quarterfinals. If results go the way the bookies suggest, the other three games will be Australia vs Samoa, England vs France and New Zealand vs Argentina.
Samoa have already beaten Australia this season, rolling over a team missing half a dozen regulars in the Wallabies’ warm-up for the Tri-Nations. It may have served as a judicious wake-up call, but that will not calm Australian nerves one iota when the time comes.
England and France is too close to call at this distance and be certain it will be a lot more complex than the usual utility vs flair debate when the two meet. And then there is the home side, New Zealand, for whom the tag of chokers will assume gargantuan proportions once we reach the knockout stages. Will there be a man among the squad who sleeps well ahead of a game against Argentina, the team that finished third in 2007 and will be joining the southern hemisphere championship next year on equal terms?
Indeed, there is the possibility that New Zealand will face England rather than the Pumas in the last eight. All it would take would be for France to beat the All Blacks in their pool match on September 24, or for Argentina to beat England in Dunedin on the second day of the tournament. Bet against either one of those results at your peril, whatever the bookies have to say about the matter.
The team that wins will have been tested to the full and will deserve the mantle of World Champions. If it happens to be South Africa, much peripheral activity will add to the drama. On the eve of the 2007 final it emerged that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) was dispensing with the services of Jake White. Win or lose it seems likely that the same thing will happen to Peter de Villiers this time around.
For one thing, the controlling body seems to have settled on the idea of a four-year term for the national coach. For another, De Villiers is not likely to agitate for another term of office. He has not enjoyed the criticism that comes with the job and dreams of taking a year off, far away from the game, sipping something mellow from a replica of the William Webb-Ellis Trophy.