Three weeks ago, if you had suggested that the Springboks would be luxuriating in a 10-day break ahead of the World Cup quarterfinals with just a few minor niggles troubling the squad, you would have rightly been considered mad. Defeat to Japan in the opening game seems to have happened in another era, a different tournament.
Wednesday’s 64-0 drubbing of the United States ensured that South Africa top Pool B irrespective of what happens this weekend. That means they will play the loser of Saturday’s match at Twickenham between Australia and Wales. That game will be one of two this weekend that are pivotal for the tournament, the other being Ireland versus France.
Those two fixtures will determine who plays who in all four quarterfinals. The carrot for the winner of each is avoiding South Africa and New Zealand.
Form is a fickle thing and, as well as Australia played in pushing England out of the competition last week, it will mean nothing against Wales. Indeed, it is probably true to say that England offered as little to the contest as the USA did. Both losing sides were humiliated in the scrums, but it would be foolhardy to suggest that the Wallabies and the Springboks have built mighty packs. The Springboks were far from mighty against Japan, and Fiji gave the Wallaby scrum plenty to think about.
All that can really be said is that winning is better than losing, which isn’t really saying very much at all. What we indisputably have ahead of us is the most open tournament in World Cup history. In all likelihood, there will be four teams remaining from the northern hemisphere and four from the southern. On the day anyone can beat anyone else.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that Wales can beat Australia and Ireland does likewise against France. That would mean that the Springboks would meet Australia in the quarterfinals, just as they did in New Zealand in 2011. The Bok bogeyman, David Pocock, is back to torment them, but thankfully referee Bryce Lawrence has retired.
In the above scenario, Wales would meet Scotland and would start as hot favourites to reach the semis. Similarly, an Irish win over France on Sunday would take them through to a knockout contest with Argentina, and France would then meet the All Blacks at the Millennium Stadium. It will be lost on no one in the New Zealand camp that their quarterfinal venue and opponents would therefore be exactly the same as 2007. France won that day, 20-18.
If you wanted to lose bets on a consistent basis, you should put money on France. Before this tournament they were a shambles, but they have quietly gone about the business of winning comfortably and have found the missing esprit de corps along the way. By contrast, New Zealand have been far short of their matchless best against Namibia and Georgia, and Argentina pushed them far closer than they would have liked.
Argentina, too, have reached the knockout stages by stealth, happily travelling under the radar. The last time the World Cup visited Europe, Argentina finished third, beating Ireland and France in pool play along the way. That Puma side was filled with players bowing out after significant international careers, players such as the Contepomi brothers and Gus Pichot. This team is on the launchpad of a great new era; no one should underestimate their ability to go all the way.
For the sake of further argument, let’s assume that Ireland, having beaten France this weekend, meet their Waterloo against the Pumas. That would set up a semifinal between Argentina and Wales, who (in this permutation) have beaten Australia at Twickenham this week.
Meanwhile, in the other half of the draw, the Springboks wreak revenge on the Wallabies to reach the semis, when they will play France, who have gloriously despatched the defending champions in the other quarterfinal. The last time South Africa met France in a World Cup semifinal was at Kings Park in the pouring rain in 1995. And so we come down to a final at Twickenham between … South Africa and Argentina.
Highly unlikely, of course, and not just because it depends too much on major sides suffering upsets. The fact is that New Zealand remain favourites because, day in and day out, they are the best team on the planet. They have, however, been far more error- prone than usual in their pool games.
Equally, any major team that can lose to Japan must know that bad times are just around the corner.
In the 10-try feast for the Springboks against the USA, it took an hour of bungling to produce 20 minutes of fluent running rugby. The first half saw Fourie du Preez mistiming his passes, with the result that players were hanging back instead of running on to the ball. Whisper it, but there was more snap and greater pace to the Springbok game when Du Preez was replaced by Rudy Paige.
Statisticians delight in telling us that Schalk Burger has carried the ball more often than anyone else at the World Cup. There is a reason for that: he is spending far too much time standing in the flyhalf channel. The South African propensity to butcher overlaps with pointless miss-out passes was also evident far too often.
But let us reiterate: the Springboks are in the quarters, they are starting to find their game and absolutely no one – and that includes Australia and New Zealand – wants to play them next.