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The Boks are back

• Posted in • By JoeBaker

Saturday, 20th October 2007. The date that South Africa reached the pinnacle of world rugby for the second time, as a side inspired by names such as Bryan Habana and Victor Matfield overpowered the defending Champions England.

However, for the next decade, South African international rugby went on a slow decline, bar an unlikely 3rd place finish at the last World Cup, with the once fearsome Springboks becoming easy pickings for the big boys of the game. Pundits and fans have bemoaned the lack of a consistently competitive South African team, both for a rugby mad country and the international game in general.

However, as shown by the recent series against England, the slump looks like it has well and truly ended…

Irrespective of the recent struggles for Eddie Jones’s side and the home advantage, defeating a side touted as possible winners of the World Cup next year in Japan over three matches was a mightily impressive feat for South Africa. Do not forget – many expected an English whitewash against such an inexperienced Springboks side. A quarter of the way into the First Test and it looked like they’d got it right as England comfortably set up slicing through the opposing defence to quickly amass a 21-3 lead. No one expected the South African response that followed. The fast, powerful and skilful attacking rugby, combined with a mean, committed yet composed defence, completely overwhelmed a stunned English side as they ran out 42-39 winners in a modern-day thriller. The same feat, although not to the same extent, followed in Bloemfontein and the series was won with a game to spare. The final match at the famous Newlands ground in Cape Town was lost as both teams struggled for fluency in tricky conditions, but the South African statement of intent had already been made.

It was undoubtedly a team effort but there were several standout performances from individuals who will be eying up Japan as the opportunity to become national heroes. None more so than the diminutive scrum-half Faf de Klerk who outplayed, outfought and outsmarted his far more experienced opposite number Ben Youngs. Particularly in the first test everything good was catalysed by the sniping Sale number 9. Even though he was not fully fit, it takes an impressive player to overcome Billy Vunipola and that’s exactly what Duane Vermeulen did at number 8, a colossus throughout. ‘The Beast’ Tendai Mtawarira was unstoppable at times, fittingly winning his 100th cap at Bloemfontein, whilst two the lightening debutants on the wings - S’busiso Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi – hinted that the big shoes of Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen could be finally be filled. All of a sudden, there are potential stars across this South African side.

And there is arguably one man who has been the catalysis for this upturn in form and confidence - Rassie Erasmus. The new South African coach has transformed the Springboks on and off the pitch. A 36-capped flanker for his country, every decision he has made thus far has been spot on, bar the way he set his team up defensively in the opening 20 minutes of the first Test. They have looked nothing like the team that had won just 11 of 25 previous Tests, bringing together a combination of the forward power, cutting edge and sheer intensity that has been absent in recent years. The decision to pick South Africa’s first black captain, Siya Kolisi, was inspired in bringing the country together, as was allowing Mtawarira to walk onto the pitch to a standing ovation at the start of his 100th cap. He has enthused a side lacking in caps and experience.

A common area of debate in international rugby is around the pros and cons of nations choosing against picking players not playing in their home country – England being the prime example. Of many big calls made for South Africa, one of the most crucial was ending this rule. For too long, in the eyes of many Springbok fans, the side had been denied players with the quality to take them up to the level they used to confidently reside at. The series against England saw the return of some of these individuals, with Duane Vermeulen, Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux three of five players brought back into the squad. The team had longed for long for players with Vermeulen’s ball carrying, de Klerk’s quick thinking and le Roux’s glorious running lines and creativity with ball in hand.

So, if the Boks have grabbed the attention of the games’ big boys again, where can they go over the next year leading into the World Cup? How should they be judged? A third placed finish at the last tournament was unexpected and based on what has gone on in the proceeding 3 years, a Semi-Final appearance should be the target. Building on this new momentum over the next 12 months is crucial – how they perform in the Autumn Internationals will be the best sign of whether their summer form was a mere moment of fleeting quality or the start of something special. Erasmus will know the significance of being more competitive during the next Rugby Championship, particularly after such a poor showing in 2017.

There is no doubting the importance of a strong South African team for international rugby. They could well be the team to watch of next year in Japan. Others need to take note – the Boks could well be back.

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