Lions test the waters for the Boks
It may sound daft but the result of a game in Auckland may have more bearing on the immediate future of Springbok rugby than the third and final Test against France in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand could scarcely be described as innovative. The midweek team — fondly known as the “dirt trackers” — has lost twice and there is a definite dearth of marquee players throughout the squad. But the signs are all there that they have the All Blacks rattled before Saturday’s first Test.
Why is this significant for South African rugby? Simply because there is a pressing need to continue the massive strides made in the French series, strides that can only be made against New Zealand in the Rugby Championship.
The All Blacks have been the best side in the world for so long that opposition teams tend to regard them as some kind of indomitable machine.
Last year, Steve Hansen’s world champions put 41 points on the Boks in Christchurch and then destroyed them at Kings Park, 57-15. What stuck in South Africa’s craw was not the size of the walloping, but the inevitability of it all.
It was a nine tries to nil rout that stripped all pretensions to competency from the home side. The Boks subsequently toured Europe, managed a 31-all draw against a distinctly ordinary Barbarians team, then went down in successive weekends to England, Italy and Wales.
It might be argued that Springbok rugby has never been as low as it was in the last three months of the 2016 season. It is in this context that the current renaissance has to be viewed.
Only the perspective of history will tell us whether the current French series is a false dawn, or whether the Lions are fooling themselves in New Zealand. But after 2016 it is understandable that we clutch at straws.
The game in Auckland is significant because Lions coach Warren Gatland has set out his stall in a very obvious way. His teams, both the dirt trackers and the Saturday side, have a simple game plan. Essentially it boils down to denying the opposition the ball.
The Lions have a bunch of superb forwards who can dominate in the scrums and line-outs. They seek territory by hoisting high balls into opposition ranks, then chasing and competing very well. What sets them apart, and the reason that Hansen and the Kiwi media are worried enough to start a pre-Test whinge fest, is the power of the Lions’ defence.
It remains to be seen whether Hansen has found a method to deny the suffocating defensive line speed of the Lions. His side relies on quick ball to dominate and play their fast-paced game, and it is so long since anyone denied them that few are willing to bet on what might happen in its absence.
So have no doubt that the Springboks will spend Saturday morning in their hotel watching what transpires in Auckland. It may be that the deliberate plan of withdrawing the current All Black Test players from the provincial games has lulled the Lions into a false sense of security. But if Gatland’s strangulation method is successful, even in a losing cause, it will give every other international side pause for thought.
As it happens, this year’s Rugby Championship has been unusually kind to South Africa. They have a two-Test series, home and away, against Argentina in August, during which time they can reignite the fires lit in June. After that they have a fortnight to prepare for Australia in Perth and New Zealand in Albany. They finish with two home Tests, against Australia in Bloemfontein and New Zealand in Cape Town.
It is way too soon to suggest that this Bok side can beat the All Blacks, but being competitive against them would be a start. As for Australia, their rugby is not so much at rock bottom right now as excavating its way towards the Earth’s core. And if you thought that losing to Scotland for the first time ever on home soil last week was shocking, then you haven’t been watching.
What is happening in Australia right now is simply the realignment of the sport of rugby union in the country. A 30-year ride has come to an ignominious end. In the mid-1980s, the Wallabies laid the foundations for spectacular success in the following decades. The Ella brothers showed a sceptical home public, raised on Rugby League and Aussie Rules, that the union game had more to offer than mud and guts.
The Wallabies won World Cups in 1991 and 1999, and in between the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) gave us the Brumbies, a dynamic new Super Rugby franchise dedicated to playing a fast, open game. From being the bridesmaid, the union started attracting established League players keen to strut their stuff somewhere beyond northern England and a few Pacific islands.
Unsurprisingly, the ARU got carried away. They added two more franchises and now the edifice has come crumbling down. There are too few quality players spread too thinly between five teams.
There are those keen to suggest that this is just a speed hump in the road to world domination, but it is far more likely to be the end of the world as the ARU knows it. Its chief executive has offered to resign over the spectacularly mismanaged cull of either the Force or the Rebels, and the Wallabies are now where the Springboks were in November last year.
Which brings us back home. If the Boks can beat France well for a third time, if they can beat Argentina and Australia twice later in the year, the Newlands Test against New Zealand might be the Rugby Championship decider. We can but dream.