The 2019 Rugby World Cup is now less than three months away and whenever the quadrennial tournament comes round the question is: can the Springboks win the Webb Ellis Cup?
With South Africa’s cricket in sackcloth and ashes and not much confidence in Bafana Bafana the focus has switched to whether, in Japan, the Boks can conquer the world.
As always the answer could either be a simple, “yes they can”, or boundlessly complicated. South Africa is good at rugby, if not in recent years, and contained in the raw material that coach Rassie Erasmus has to work with there is certainly the essence of a formidable combination.
Those who believe in the numerology will point out that the Springboks’ other two victories were 12 years apart (1995 and 2007) so the signs are good. Unfortunately, top-class sport does not work on mystical notions, it is all about a team being at its best, playing to the maximum limits of its ability for all the time and matches it takes.
And it is this aspect – consistent high quality of play and the ability to summon a combination of imagination and clinical precision at just the right moment – that all South African sides, hence the Springboks, lack.
Siya Kolisi’s men are capable of the perfect formula, but whether they can unfailingly conjure it to win all the little battles that add up to an 80-minute performance, over the course of a nine-week tournament, is doubtful.
This train of thought leads me to a moment and a memory of Duane Vermeulen being part of an extraordinary play, containing skill, guile and a break from character to win a match.
With five minutes to go in the quarter-final of the 2015 World Cup against Wales at Twickenham the Springboks were 18-19 down and seemingly headed out of the tournament; unable to break down dogged Welsh defence.
But off a strong, left-hand scrum close to the Welsh goal line, which wheeled right, Duane Vermeulen picked up and broke to the blindside. The Welsh flanker on that side had been compromised by the wheel and when Vermeulen was confronted by scrumhalf Lloyd Williams, wing Alex Cuthbert was drawn off his wing to assist with the tackle.
It was classic Vermeulen, the ultimate battering ram, but instead of his usual head-down surge, the No8 flicked the ball behind his back to Fourie du Preez who had looped around on the left, and the captain on the day scooted over in at the corner for the try that put the Boks into the last four.
There were two crucial elements in this important score. Vermeulen did something he was not known to do, thus catching the Welsh wanting, and the execution of the behind-the-back flip pass was perfect and straight to the hands of Du Preez.
Get it? Surprise and accuracy. The game is not called chess at full pace for nothing. There has to be strategy, clever innovation and perfect execution.
There’s that word again – perfect. One of the best sporting self-help books is called “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect” by sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella. In it he attempts to pacify the minds of his golfing clients by pointing out that a missed putt, a bad drive, a momentary lapse of concentration is not the end of the world.
It’s a treatise that has been helpful to many, also in other sports, but in the highly-charged world of a Rugby World Cup it doesn’t work like that.
The Rugby World Cup IS a game of perfect. Lineout throws must find the jumper, scrums must be won cleanly, box kicks must go the right distance, grubbers must not ricochet off an opponent, passes must go to hand, passes must not be behind or above a player (thus breaking momentum), receivers must make sure they’re behind the passer, touch kicks must be long but also “dead” so that the ball can’t be quickly thrown in and run back, wings must have good aerial skills, penalties (worse, yellow or red cards) must not be conceded. In short, mistakes must be minimal and accuracy supreme.
There is just so much that has to be perfect. For instance goal-kicking. Joel Stransky’s name will forever be written large in the annals because of heroics in 1995. And take Percy Montgomery – at the 2007 RWC in France, he played at the Stade de France three times (England, Argentina, England) and didn’t miss one of 18 place-kicks.
To emphasise. Winning the World Cup is a game of perfect. Can the Boks do it? Right now, I’m not so sure.