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Lucky omen for Boks, but first things first

Being drawn in the same pool as New Zealand may be seen by some as a bad thing for the Springboks, but there are several reasons why it should be seen as the opposite – not the least of those being that it is a lucky omen.

South Africa have twice before had to play against the world champions in the pool phase of a World Cup. It happened in the Boks’ first appearance at the global showpiece event here on home soil in 1995, when they had to beat Australia in the first game to set them on what their coach Kitch Christie referred to as the high road to the final.

In 2007 they scored a resounding win over an England team that was a pale shadow of the side that had won the World Cup in Australia four years earlier but which ended up facing John Smit’s men again in the final in Paris a few weeks later.

I think it was Naas Botha who said, when he was serving as Jake White’s manager to the South African under-20 team in the 2002 Junior World Championships, that you shouldn’t worry about having to play the top side before the final as in order to become the best you have to beat the best.

Many have said it subsequently, and they are wise and true words. They have held true for the two World Cup-winning Bok teams. And of course, as many commentators would by now have pointed out, the Boks don’t really need to win their pool match against New Zealand because they just have to finish second in their group.

If you really think finishing order is important, cast your mind back to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. The Boks finished top of their group and were expecting to play Ireland, who weren’t any great shakes in those days, in the quarterfinal.

However, Ireland ended up beating Australia in their big pool game and topped the group, so the Boks, who topped their group, ended up bumping into the Wallabies, an opponent they really didn’t relish playing, in the first play-off game in Wellington.

It turned into their only play-off game because Bryce Lawrence was the referee and David Pocock made the best of the leeway he was allowed to wreck the best-laid plans of the South Africans.


However, there is one little fact of World Cup history that does need to be taken seriously, and it is the one relating to how often teams have lost earlier in the World Cup and then gone on to win the final. Correct, it hasn’t happened, and the Boks should be going all out to win the match against the All Blacks.

For a start, a win over their old foe would give them confidence, and also knock some of the stuffing out of the Kiwi self-assurance. Facing the world champions early in the tournament will also require that the Boks have to be sharp early on and when they get to the knock-outs they may be more battle hardened than perhaps some of the other teams will be.

It will be good to have some early edge. It is hard to get too excited about the pool phases of the World Cup when your biggest game of that phase is against Scotland, as it was at the last World Cup. The Scotland game suddenly became a lot bigger when the Boks unexpectedly lost to Japan, and therein lies the rub when it comes to the build-up to World Cup 2019 for South African rugby.

I have to agree with those former Boks and other experts who, when asked about the World Cup draw, expressed the opinion that the draw will be irrelevant if the Bok performances continue on their current downward slide. Italy are the other respectable rugby nation in the Bok pool and a few years ago you would have given them no chance of beating South Africa, but who can say that with any assurance now after what happened in Brighton in 2015 (against Japan) and in Florence last year?

It goes without saying that the Boks have much improving to do if they are going to challenge New Zealand in two years from now, but for me the biggest concern about 2016 wasn’t the 50-point drubbing at the hands of the All Blacks in Durban. Instead it was the fact that the national team lost to Italy and Argentina, and were comprehensively outplayed in Cardiff by Wales and by a depleted Ireland team in Cape Town earlier in the year.

The reason there was so much angst over this World Cup draw from a South African viewpoint was because the team has been in free-fall and is now listing among the middle-tier nations.

Forget about New Zealand for now. Let’s get the first objective in place, and that must surely be to re-establish the Boks as enough of a force to make thoughts of an Italian win in the other big pool game seem far-fetched.

At the moment that is not the case.

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