Given the rugby world’s preoccupation with all things All Blacks, perhaps the best way of looking at the Boks’ warts-and-all win over the Wallabies is that it was the perfect preparation for Saturday’s mighty rematch with the Kiwis in Pretoria.
When Rassie Erasmus settled down in his PE hotel room on Saturday night he would have reflected with contentment on a win against top opposition despite an inevitable drop in intensity from Wellington. Momentum and morale has been sustained, and the unglamorous performance will keep the players “honest,” as they put it in New Zealand.
In other words, the Boks have preserved the belief that was gloriously engendered by the victory at the Cake Tin while knowing that a repeat of their iffy performance at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium will see them hit for six at Loftus this week.
A second consecutive defeat to the Wallabies would have set aside the triumph in Wellington as yet another Springbok, backs-against-the-wall, one-off. Instead, another stout defensive effort staved off the desperate Aussies, allowing the Boks to march to Pretoria in a good mental space. They will be be quietly optimistic but certainly not cocky.
Too often over the last decade or so we have seen Springbok teams unable to back-up significant wins or performances, so it was vital for this Bok team, under a much-hyped new coach, to prove both to themselves and their long-suffering supporters that this is indeed a brave new dawn.
The Boks have now beaten each of their Rugby Championship rivals, including what has proved to be a very strong Pumas team, giving supporters reason to believe that something special is brewing under the artful Erasmus.
Like the A-Team under John “Hannibal” Smith, the plan is coming together for Erasmus’ Boks. During the dark times of the Meltdown in Mendoza, and the despairing defeat in Brisbane, he could have been forgiven for quoting the biblical phrase “Oh ye of little faith…”
Speaking of keeping the faith, what we have seen in the two Bok wins is the players at last getting to grips with the system devised by defence coach Jacques Nienaber, Erasmus’ bosom buddy who has followed him from the Cheetahs to the Stormers, Munster and onwards to the Springboks.
Casting our minds back to the series against England, the fatal defensive glitches — especially out wide — suggested the players were having difficulty transferring Nienaber’s strategy from the blackboard to the field of play.
But in Wellington they showed they had got the hang of it, and on Saturday night Wallabies coach Michael Cheika made an interesting observation on the Boks’ defence. He said: “They have obviously been taking a bit of time getting used to playing high line-rush defence but they have done really well. They have now scored two good wins off that defensive foundation.”
And it is one thing understanding the plan and another having the will to put the body on the line in implementing it. A truism of rugby is that you can judge the spirit and camaraderie in a team by its appetite for destruction on defence. On that score, the bloody-mindedness in the tackle that we have seen from every Bok player suggests a team at peace with itself and brimming with bon homie.
Also, despite not playing at their best against the Wallabies, there was nevertheless a growing conviction during the match that the Boks would prevail, another positive sign that this is a very good team in the making.
This week at Loftus, the Boks will inevitably raise their game against the All Blacks. All teams do, but especially the Boks.
The All Blacks, fresh from securing the Rugby Championship in Buenos Aires where they convincingly dispatched the Pumas, will be once bitten, twice shy against their Old Foe … but with 52,000 South Africans exhorting a fast-maturing Bok team to glory, that double is enticingly possible.