One statistic should suffice to explain the mountain South Africa has to climb to beat New Zealand in Christchurch on Saturday. The last time the Springboks beat the All Blacks away from home was in Hamilton in 2009. Since then New Zealand have been unbeaten in 43 Test matches at home against all opposition.
Seven years. It has a biblical ring to it. So they must be heading for a fall, right? Wrong, in so many ways.
Remarkably, there are three members of Saturday’s Bok squad who played in that game, which is one more than the All Blacks. Bryan Habana, Tendai Mtawarira and Morné Steyn were all present at a match that marks the high-water mark of Springbok rugby in the new millennium.
The triumph followed hard on the heels of a series win against the British and Irish Lions and clinched the Tri-Nations title for the third time; it has not come to these shores since. It was a third successive victory over New Zealand; those were the days. The Bulls had clinched a second Super Rugby title earlier in the year; ditto.
The fact that there are players in the current squad with a link to the 2009 team helps to underline what is missing right now. Steyn, for instance, had Fourie du Preez on his inside and Jean de Villiers on his outside. Mtawarira had his arm around Bismarck du Plessis and his bum on the shoulder of Bakkies Botha. Habana was two years on from winning the player of the tournament at the 2007 World Cup. And, of course, the Boks were the reigning world champions.
Perhaps it would be sensible to remember that the 2009 team was coached by Peter de Villiers, a man who endured a torrid time at the hands of the media and the rugby public for most of his four years at the helm. Allister Coetzee may feel that he is friendless and far from home right now, but a swift phone call to P Divvy should remind him that there is nothing new under the sun.
As it happens, the majority of Kiwis hope for a decent contest in Christchurch. There is little point being the best if you can’t test yourselves every now and then.
Traditionally, Springbok teams with their backs to the wall have found a way to be competitive against the All Blacks. Not this one. There are too many holes.
It’s nobody’s fault. A case can be made for the inclusion of every player in the side, even Willem Alberts, who hopped on a plane in Paris when the news came through that Lood de Jager would not be available for selection. But there remains the gnawing feeling that something is missing.
It is not about quotas. There are but five players of colour in the 23, down from the nine Coetzee managed in the second Test against Ireland. Somehow he has found reasons to exclude Lionel Mapoe, Trevor Nyakane and Bongi Mbonambi from Saturday’s squad. This is not going to go down well in the corridors of power.
No one likes to talk about it, but Coetzee has further painted himself into a corner by not having a single player of colour on the bench. Traditionally, South African coaches at provincial level have replaced like for like and in the hurly burly of the game few notice that the status quo has been rigidly maintained. Woe betide the coach who has too many “indigenous” players on the field for the final quarter.
Using the same inherently racist logic, Coetzee cannot replace Habana, Mtawarira, Oupa Mohoje, Elton Jantjies or Juan de Jongh during the course of the game on Saturday, as it will render the team entirely too pale. This does not take into account the capricious fates, however. If one or more succumb early to injury, Coetzee’s hands are tied.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Last week Griquas coach Peter Engeldow selected 11 players of colour in a squad of 22. His team therefore had the 50% representation the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has demanded of Coetzee for the 2019 World Cup. Griquas duly went out and beat Boland in Kimberley and will fancy their chances against the Blue Bulls at Loftus this week.
It is impossible not to feel sympathy for Coetzee in the circumstances. Not only is his team not good enough to beat the All Blacks, it’s also not black enough either.
There is no easy way to say this, but the bald fact of the matter is that South African rugby is at a low ebb right now. The great generation that won the Under 21 World Championship in 2002 and the World Cup in 2007 has not been replaced.
There are lots of good players, but a dearth of great ones. And so we soldier on from week to week, hoping that the Lions template will suffice. Hoping that any group of South African players who play together long enough will automatically emerge from the cocoon as world beaters.
It is more sensible to accept that great teams are defined by what comes before and after them. The teams of Harry Viljoen and Rudolf Straeuli that campaigned between 2000 and 2003 were sometimes desperately poor.
It may be that we are going through the same process today, one that is disguised by ill-considered talk of quotas.
The Springboks will rise again, but not this Saturday in Christchurch.