No 1 is non-negotiable for Boks
Usually after being absorbed by an intriguing five-day cricket test you wake up the day after feeling a bit bereft. It’s a similar feeling to when you've finished reading a really good novel. Once it’s done you sit there feeling a little flat and thinking “What now?”
This, though, is one time I am able to say that I'm glad it's all over. My long-legged Jack Russell terrier, Bobby, doesn’t understand it when I spend whole days pacing up and down in the lounge, nervously talking to myself, and if he had had to put up with another day of that, he might well have ended up biting me. Which wouldn’t be good as I might bite him back and as he is my only company during the working (cricket-watching) day, we need to be on good terms.
Of course Robin Jackman was right: the Proteas, with the new ball still up their sleeve and just three wickets to get, were always in the pound seats, even when Prior and Swann were improvising their way to a partnership that would have been good for T20. But it still didn’t help the nerves waiting for the wicket when the score was increasing by such big increments every over. Whoever said that test cricket was boring?
The upshot of it all is that Graeme Smith and his team woke up this morning knowing they are the No 1 ranked team in the world (a glance at the rankings confirmed they aren’t far away from topping the other two formats
either) and the challenge for them is now to remain there.
They have been there before as I clearly remember a column that I wrote when they went to No 1 in September 2009. That was after the Ashes series of that year, England’s win forcing Australia to drop back and enabling the South Africans to take the pole position they should have taken a few months earlier when they botched a home series against the Aussies.
The motivation for my column back then was that it just so happened that the Springboks were at the top of the IRB world rankings at the same time following their successful series against the British and Irish Lions and a strong start to that year’s Tri-Nations. Biff (Graeme Smith) and Barney (John Smit) were lauded for their leading roles in ensuring that South Africa ruled the world in their respective sports.
The cricketers slipped back later that same year, but they had remained there or there-abouts until yesterday. Rugby though has been a different story. Since that heady year where they so comfortably dominated New Zealand and Australia on their way to Tri-Nations glory, the Boks have dropped to as low as fourth at stages (after the World Cup quarterfinal exit last October).
That is inexcusable if you consider the depth of rugby talent available and the standing of SA as a rugby nation. With the resources the game in this country has at its disposal, the Boks should never be lower than No 2 – and it is reasonable to suggest that if the Proteas can go to No 1 in their sport, the Boks should be able to do the same, and stay there, in theirs.
Indeed, it could be argued at this time that the world game needs the Boks to challenge strongly for No 1, for they look the only likely challenger to what could soon become a New Zealand hegemony, if it isn’t already.
For me the fact that the All Blacks were able to so easily win an away test against Australia this past weekend while not playing particularly well, underlined just how far ahead they are. In past years the New Zealand dominance of most competitions they participated in still left a little space for intrigue as they were perennial chokers at the global showpiece event, the Rugby World Cup.
Now that they have broken a 24-year drought in that competition, their ability to dominate the years in between World Cups could cause international rugby to become a little too predictable and ho-hum.
It’s easy to see why New Zealand are so consistently good – the administrators there all seem to be on the same page and their feeder systems operate within what one could call a culture of excellence. We South Africans got really excited when the Baby Boks won the Junior World Championship on home soil earlier this year, but the Kiwi junior team wins it so often that they don’t make a fuss about it.
Their Sevens team is also consistently near the top or at the top of the World Sevens Series, and if you ran a line through their Super Rugby teams at the start of this last season, before injuries started to take such a heavy toll, in positions such as flyhalf they had several young players coming through where in South Africa we had just one or two.
It was a step in the right direction when Saru appointed Rassie Erasmus to oversee national teams across all levels, as his track record suggests he is well equipped to create systems similar to those that drive the New Zealand's consistency. Hopefully Erasmus is being utilised properly and in such a way that suits his strengths, for the need to get Bok rugby to a place where they can consistently be No 1 is surely a non-negotiable.
At the very least the Boks must narrow the gap that New Zealand has opened up so that international rugby can emulate the interest that has been focused on test cricket in the years since the Australian stranglehold on that sport was broken.