The progress made by the Springboks in 2017 will be put under the microscope at the NIB Stadium in Perth on Saturday. Five wins from five outings says much for Allister Coetzee’s team, but winning brings its own pressure.
There are those who will argue that both June’s 3-0 series win against France and the home and away victories against Argentina exposed not so much South African excellence as their opponents’ frailties. Those critics will aver that the first important Test of the season is this one against Australia.
The problem for Coetzee’s men is that they don’t know which Wallabies team will show up. Will it be the one that conceded 40 points in the first half to the All Blacks in Sydney, or will it be the one that scored three tries in the first 16 minutes in Dunedin a week later? The one that led 29-28 with three minutes left, before conceding a late try to go down 35-29, perhaps?
It is quite possible that Wallabies coach Michael Cheika also doesn’t know. After all, he had the team in camp for a fortnight before the opening game but when the Test got under way it looked as if the players had only been introduced that morning.
What can be said unequivocally is that this Australian side knows its way to the try line. To score nine tries in two Tests against an All Black side that prides itself on its defence is remarkable in itself. Indeed, it has been the subject of a little bloodletting in New Zealand.
Statistics are largely unhelpful. They tend to suggest that home advantage is crucial when Australia play South Africa. But the clever people at Opta Sports have unearthed one set of stats that is worth setting out in full.
“Each of these teams has played 101 games in the Rugby Championship for 42 wins, two draws and 57 losses, while only one point separates them in defence, with the Wallabies (2 472 points conceded) edging the Springboks (2 473).”
In other words, since the beginning of the Tri Nations in 1996, one solitary point on the scoreboard separates the two sides. It is fair to say, therefore, that this fixture represents something of a tie-breaker. Are South Africa going up, are Australia going down, or are the two deluding themselves? Does being competitive in defeat against New Zealand count as improvement, and do five wins in a row against limited opposition suggest likewise?
From a Springbok point of view, one thing is certain and that is, after the season the side endured in 2016, they will take five wins and run for the hills. It was not simply the results sheet that counted against them last year but the manner of defeat: the hours of fruitless physical exertion producing scarcely a whiff of creativity.
If the five wins had produced only one positive — to wit, fitting Elton Jantjies for his role at fly half — they would have been worthwhile. But so much more has come with the successful run.
Ross Cronjé at scrumhalf has lent a calmness and an understanding of what pressure brings to a situation that few would have predicted. His absence in Salta two weeks ago revealed his worth to the team and exposed all the shortcomings inherent in Francois Hougaard’s game. Absence truly made the heart grow fonder.
Siya Kolisi has used the winning streak to emerge as a serious international player. The whiff of tokenism has been blown away to such an extent that many were genuinely surprised that he was overlooked for the captaincy in the injury-enforced absence of Warren Whiteley.
If anyone had suggested two years ago that Uzair Cassiem would ever be the starting number eight for the Springboks, they would have been laughed at. But Cassiem, an old-fashioned blind-side flank played out of position, was close to the best player on the park against the Pumas in Salta.
We could go on, but the important thing to identify is the absence of sacred cows. When Coetzee took the reins 18 months ago he was hamstrung by the South African Rugby Union’s insistence on preference being given to players already under contract. This year he has the freedom to reward those in form, resulting in a wholesale promotion of the Lions team.
The next two weeks are crucial to the development of this team. Perth has traditionally been a kind venue for the Springboks, and the usual displaced South Africans shouting for the land of their birth may be augmented this week by fans of the Western Force who have been shabbily treated by the Australian Rugby Union.
The Force have been deselected for Super Rugby from 2018 onwards and lost their appeal in the courts this week. Ironi-cally, it could be as significant for the development of the game in Australia as the Kings and Cheetahs moving north has been in South Africa. There is already talk of the Force joining a Pacific Islands tournament and the realignment of the game continues apace. The Boks will be hoping it is a realignment that includes six wins in a row for them.