If anyone tries to peddle you the line that Saturday’s Rugby Championship finale in Pretoria is a crucial moment in the build-up to next year’s World Cup please inform them that they are talking bollocks.
Come to think of it, don’t let them sell you the line that the Springboks need to beat the All Blacks to win the World Cup either. The team that Jake White coached to World Cup glory in 2007 didn’t beat the Kiwis to win it.
It is true the Boks will have to play the All Blacks in Japan next year in a pool game. But since when did a pool stage game become a knock-out fixture? The Boks can lose to New Zealand in September and then, with a bit of admittedly unlikely help from others, they can beat another sequence of teams to win the World Cup in October.
But that’s not the main thrust of why I think all this preoccupation with the World Cup is bollocks. I will get to my central point by asking where Frans Steyn was the day that the Boks beat the All Blacks in Rustenburg in their last clash with the Kiwis before the start of the 2007 World Cup year?
I actually have no clue, but I do know that he wasn’t playing for the Boks. We are talking late September 2006, a time when Steyn was just starting to be noticed playing Currie Cup rugby for the Sharks. He was just a precocious kid with promise then, he was a long way from the player who stepped into the breach created by Jean de Villiers’ injury at the World Cup 12 months later.
Steyn was and still is a freaky talent but he is far from the only example of a player who became much more in a World Cup year than what he was in the year that preceded it. Think Lood de Jager, who was considered a fringe player when he made his international debut as a replacement in 2014 but became the star Bok of the 2015 World Cup year.
What happened to the players that were part of the Bok win in Rustenburg? That’s a good question, for in some cases the answers show just how much water may still have to flow beneath the bridge before either of the two Loftus protagonists can be sure of what they will be presenting in Japan.
From memory, AJ Venter was there, but didn’t feature in the World Cup. Andre Pretorius, who kicked the penalty to win that game, was at the World Cup, but not as a first-choice player. The starting flyhalf was in fact Butch James, who was mostly on the fringes, at best, for most of that World Cup cycle. Jaco van der Westhuyzen was White’s first-choice flyhalf for his first two years in charge.
Just to prove that there are many different ways to skin a cat, 2007 was a year where much of the momentum for the later World Cup success was created by the success that two local franchises, the Bulls and the Sharks, enjoyed in what was then the Super 14. James did produce a solid 60 minutes in a Test against England later in 2006 before being injured, but it was his performances in the Super 14 that booked him his prime spot at the World Cup in France.
Given how South African teams have struggled in the competition recently it might seem unlikely that we see a repeat of 2007, but the point is it could happen. Super Rugby could also throw curve balls in the form of injuries. As could the coming end-of-year tour.
At the corresponding stage of 2014, when the Boks scored what was to be their solitary win of the Heyneke Meyer era against the All Blacks, Jean de Villiers was fit and healthy and in top form as a team leader. Then came a crippling injury on the November tour and he was ruled out of rugby for much of the World Cup year. When he did return there were doubts about his readiness to play, and when he got onto the field he looked like a passenger.
Going much further back, there are many South African and overseas examples proving that a lot can change, and can change quite late, in the build-ups of the contending World Cup teams without costing them their chance of winning.
One of the players who starred for the All Blacks in the tight 2011 final was away on a fishing trip just days before that game, Hennie le Roux only moved to centre to accommodate Joel Stransky at flyhalf at the start of the 1995 World Cup, and Michael Catt’s appearances at inside centre for the England team that won in 2003 were also not the product of long-term planning.
Yes, Loftus is a huge game, but building it up as a World Cup dress rehearsal is to ignore the twists of fate and the peaks and troughs of personal performance, plus the tendency of some coaches to second guess themselves when the pressure arrives, that invariably subvert or redirect the discourse when the World Cup year arrives.