On September 21, 2019, exactly a year from today the Springboks and All Blacks clash in Yokohama at Rugby World Cup Japan, and until a week ago victory in that match was seen as a formality for New Zealand.
But as coaches love to cliché, ‘a week is a long time in rugby.’ Never has that been more accurate than these past six days.
The local rugby firmament and the broader South African public have been floating on a pillow of euphoria this week, and it’s not because the private use of Dagga was legalised.
The Boks beating the All Blacks is a rare occurrence these days and winning in New Zealand has become a one-in-a-generation feat, so last week’s 36-34 victory in Wellington was well worth celebrating and glowing over.
There is a significant but subtle difference to a once off win against the All Blacks, as opposed to beating any other team.
The All Blacks have set the bar so high that teams, which beat them, in a match that really matters, are excellent teams themselves.
Yes, the All Blacks lost 23-18 to a mediocre Australia in Brisbane last year, but that rubber was as dead as a Brontosaurus. New Zealand was already showing signs of being human after their titanic struggle against the Lions earlier in the year.
In matches that really matter, the All Blacks have only suffered a handful of losses in a decade.
Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in Chicago in late 2016 was a signal that their growth as a team was in full bloom, which has seen the Irish rise to No 2 in the world rankings.
The British & Irish Lions’ win in Wellington last year was achieved by a team made up of the best players from those islands, forged together for a short time, under an astute coach.
And this made the Springboks’ win last week hugely significant because bad teams don’t beat the All Blacks – especially in New Zealand.
It’s been a season of ups and downs for the Boks but coach Rassie Erasmus is showing the steel needed for the job. He has claimed there is a plan and a process and he hasn’t wavered. An indication that his vision should perhaps be trusted, was rammed home in Wellington last week.
Not much can be read into the loss against Wales in Washington in June because only two starters that day – Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jesse Kriel – started three months later against the All Blacks in Wellington.
Erasmus moved closer to his dream 23 in the England series and despite his mixing and matching in the opening stages of the Rugby Championship, the team that started in Wellington, appears to be as near to full strength as possible.
There are only nine Tests remaining before the start of RWC 2019 and some certainties are emerging while other problematic areas are being highlighted.
The tight five looks cast in stone for the foreseeable future with exceptional players such as RG Snyman and Tendai Mtawarira set for reserve roles.
The back row still needs tweaking, but Pieter-Steph has solved some problems with his huge contribution as a ball-carrying, big-tackling No 7. With Jean-Luc Du Preez back in the mix and the all round skills of Marcell Coetzee to call on, there are options.
No 8 Warren Whiteley finally proved his Test credentials with a huge performance in Wellington. Whiteley should still be understudy to Duane Vermeulen when he returns to the squad, but after Wellington, that no longer feels like a crisis.
Scrumhalf remains a problematic position with Faf de Klerk either brilliant or poor while Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier and Ross Cronje have a handful of minutes between them. Faf is clearly first choice, but despite his assertion that he needs to build depth; it’s one position Erasmus has not shared. All his eggs are in De Klerk’s basket.
Handré Pollard did enough in Wellington to prove (again) that when it comes to the big occasion he rises to it. Elton Jantjies clearly has the coach’s backing and is performing better for it. The Boks need at least two viable flyhalf options and Erasmus has put his cards on the table. They are the pair he will back to Japan.
When fit, Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende are clearly at the top of the midfield pecking order while Willie le Roux’s mercurial skills are worth enduring because of the X-factor he brings.
Aphiwe Dyantyi is probably the first name on the team sheet these days. He creates more space from nothing than the Big Bang, while a fit again S’bu Nkosi is likely to seal the other wing position.
More broadly the Boks are starting to come to grips with their roles defensively and the team culture appears to be thriving under Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi.
The Boks will not go into RWC 2019 as favourites, but their win in NZ last week proved that Erasmus and his management are finding answers to a lot of questions.
And that should worry the hell out of any opposition.