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A question of when rather than if

A decision to return to Cape Town to watch the match between the Springboks and Samoa on television rather than go to Loftus saw me spend this past Friday night in the little Karoo town of Hanover. Naturally enough, the talk in the convivial pub of the guesthouse I was staying in soon switched from matters relating to roadworks on the N1 to rugby.

My grasp of Afrikaans is not as good as it should be, so when I heard the words “…sal wen die Boks” I thought the gentleman was saying the Springboks would smash Samoa and I agreed with him. Samoa had been good against smaller opposition, but there is a reason they generally have been smashed by big scores when in South Africa.

But of course “wen die Boks” translates into beat the Boks, so that wasn’t really what he was saying. And although I thought his prediction for the game was way off beam, he did make some very good points that I was able to ponder as I raced the final 700-odd kilometres down the N1 the next morning so I could be home in time to watch what turned out to be a cracking game between the Lions and the Wallabies.

He asked me why it was that the Boks could be good one week and then so poor the next. He was obviously referring to the difference between the Durban test of the Castle Lager Incoming Series and the game the following week in Nelspruit, but it has been a familiar sequence through much of the post-isolation era. He also asked me why the Boks so often struggle against teams that the All Blacks put away with ease.

All of them are good questions, and the fact that the Boks did find their killer instinct against Samoa 24 hours later perhaps only serves to underline his point: the Boks do tend to be up and down. Let’s not forget either that the game was played at Heyneke Meyer’s favourite ground, where they also won big against Australia last year.

We’ve also seen the Boks win big before against Samoa without it necessarily meaning anything. Cases in point are the Loftus win at the start of the Rudolf Straeuli reign as Bok coach in 2002, and the massive Pool win in the 2003 World Cup, a game that preceded an abject performance in losing to the All Blacks in the quarterfinal.

But the most interesting question was the one about the All Blacks being consistently good. We got really excited about the size of the South African victory against Samoa, but ask yourself this question: when the All Blacks beat teams like Samoa by that score do you think to yourself “Wow, that was good!”?

No you probably don’t, because wins like that are what is expected from the All Blacks when they play second-tier opposition. It’s a habit for them.

And I think Bok coach Meyer will agree with me when I make the following point, for we once had a conversation about it: South African rugby has the resources and the raw talent to aspire to being like New Zealand, where there is a culture of excellence across all levels.

The Baby Blacks have now missed out on the Junior World Championship trophy for two years in a row, but they made the play-offs in both of those years and before that they won it four years in a row. We get excited when the Bok under-20 team does it once, and ditto the Sevens team when they win a solitary tournament. New Zealand consistently wins both Sevens events and the Sevens Series.

Let’s not even go into the All Black record in the Tri-Nations, which has now become the Rugby Championship. South Africa has won it thrice, and each time it was a seismic event, but New Zealand wins it every other year.

I sense though as much as I hope, that slowly but surely, over a period, that might change, and perhaps that change is already starting to happen. The Junior Boks beat the eventual winners, England, in this most recent Junior World Championship, and were brilliant in coming from behind to dispatch New Zealand in the third/fourth play-off.

They were unlucky to lose to Wales in their semifinal, and thus unlucky not to win the tournament for the second successive year. The Sevens team appears to be improving too, and it does appear that since Rassie Erasmus took up position as Saru performance director, things are starting to come together nicely across the different levels, and that augurs well for the future. There is still a lot to be done, but the succession planning and organisation that the game has been crying out for over many years finally appears to be happening.

And while I got criticised earlier in the year for lauding Meyer and predicting that the organisation that has been done during the down months will pay off with a good international season, so far that confidence doesn’t appear to have been misplaced.

Whereas this time last year his management had only just come together, this season they have been all over the show helping the different franchises while also planning for the season ahead. As argued at the end of the last November tour, there is also a winning habit being built, and if they stay focused, the Boks should beat Argentina in the opening Rugby Championship games and hit the matches against New Zealand and Australia with the confidence that comes with being unbeaten over eight successive tests.

The last time that was the case was in 1998, when Nick Mallett’s team went on to become the first Bok team to win the Tri-Nations. The Incoming Series matches have enabled the Boks to build confidence and they have shown that Meyer’s game-plan, when perfected and when the selection mix is right, is far from dour.

Meyer can also not be criticised for not spreading his net far enough if you look at the new players blooded in this series, and the youthful look of the side has to augur well for the future.

Much bigger tests lie ahead, and with a young team we may yet see some more ups and downs such as my friend in Hanover spoke of. But long term, there is reason for confidence and I agree with Meyer’s post-match comment at Loftus – the Boks do appear to be building towards something special. For me it’s a question of “when” rather than “if”.

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