Maybe Boks deserve more credit
An easy Springbok passage through the Pool stages of Rugby World Cup 2015 in England was a less relevant aspect of Monday’s draw than the confirmation of what comes after that.
It’s true that the Boks have an easier Pool than they had last year in New Zealand, where they were drawn with Wales, Samoa and Fiji. But then those who feared that they wouldn’t make it to the top of the group, let alone into the top two that qualify for the quarterfinals, were being a bit pessimistic. Yes, the Boks battled against both Wales and Samoa before winning, but check the record books before telling me they should expect to lose to either of those sides.
The bottom line is that the Boks should never fear elimination in the Pool stages regardless of who they are grouped with, and the real World Cup only starts in the knock-out stages. And that is where there should be concern, as their likely opponents in the first play-off game suggest another quarterfinal elimination is a distinct possibility.
Their opponents then will be one of England, Australia or Wales. The latter, for the reason listed above – only one win against the Boks in 106 years of trying – would be the preferred adversary, for both England and Australia could be tricky.
A suggestion that the Wallabies may be anything other than powder-puff will be laughed at by those who live in the here and now and only look at current form and the current player availability when assessing a team’s chances of success three years from now.
But while the new Super Rugby format that they pressed onto their Sanzar partners may continue to shoot them in the foot, the Wallabies could be well placed if the many young stars who were out injured this season are able to play enough rugby in the next three years to develop their careers.
Plus the Wallabies do have an uncanny ability to win when they shouldn’t, such as when they beat England a few weeks ago. And their second string team was good enough to end the All Blacks' winning sequence before that. They’re a team you don’t mind meeting in the semifinals, when it becomes a bit of a lottery anyway, but you don’t want to meet them when there is a possibility they can send you home two weeks early.
Just the fact they are the home team makes England dangerous, and they played in the final of the last World Cup they hosted in 1991. It was refreshing to see some English media people taking the line that one swallow doesn’t make a summer following their team’s outstanding win over New Zealand the other day, but the fact remains they did send out a loud and ominous warning to the other contenders about their capabilities.
Like the Boks and potentially the Wallabies, they are a young side, and they can develop between now and the World Cup. The Boks won’t want to be playing them in a quarterfinal either – in fact they should be even less enthused about that than a potential replay of last year’s last-eight showdown with Australia.
But before we get too carried away with the England performance against New Zealand, let’s acknowledge that fatigue was probably a massive contributing factor in the All Blacks' failure to pitch this past weekend. The Kiwis played in fits and spurts throughout their northern hemisphere tour. It was just that before England the spurts were good enough to get them through, and they probably thought they could do the same against England. Hopefully those who love to compare All Black performances against certain opposition to what the Boks do against those same opponents would have been consistent this past weekend by doing it again.
The Boks were pilloried on this past tour for their lack of attacking prowess – but where’s the New Zealand defence? They conceded three tries to Scotland, and at stages of the England game it appeared someone in the All Black team had shouted “Open the gates”.
It probably wouldn’t have happened had England played them during the southern hemisphere season, and ultimately the inability of rugby administrators to do what should be done, which is to introduce a global season, will mean clashes between southern and northern nations outside of in a World Cup will always provide a skewed measuring stick.
We have often seen northern sides coming here in June looking knackered, but since the advent of the double round of Super Rugby derbies and extension of that competition, the southern nations have looked particularly jaded late in the year. The Boks were arguably the freshest looking of the southern teams at the 2011 World Cup because key players had been rested in the Tri-Nations.
After watching England beat the All Blacks, I am more convinced that the Boks maybe deserve more credit than they received for somehow managing to get through their end-of-year tour unbeaten. In the end they were the only member of the southern big three that managed it.