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There’s a lot to be pleased about

The June international window is not completely over as there are two more appetising test matches in the British and Irish Lions series to come, but the past few weeks have certainly provided a lot to think about and, depending on where you live and what nation you support, enthuse over.

From a South African viewpoint, the fun does appear to be back in watching and covering the Springboks again. By the end of the last November tour the whole rugby business appeared to be under threat, but the Mexican waves that rolled out across Kings Park and Emirates Airlines Park over the past two Saturdays suggested we don’t need to launch those lifeboats just yet – the ship is still some way from sinking.

South African fans couldn’t have expected more from the Boks than they delivered. There were three emphatic wins and at the start of the series, the Boks certainly would have been happy to buy the end result.

The final test, where the Boks struggled a bit, had its place too. The scrums and the lineouts didn’t function nearly as well as in the previous tests and the team struggled to put more than four phases together, but the opposition are allowed to play well too. The French didn’t exactly just lie down and die.

Beating a French team that tried hard makes the victory more meritorious than beating a French team that didn’t have the stomach for the fight. The French pressed hard at stages of all three test matches. Had they been thrashed by a massive score like they were in Cape Town in 2010, we would have been wondering about the quality of the opposition as much as praising the Boks.

For that reason, the final test, with the Boks having to absorb a lot of pressure and still winning well, was a significant step and the way they did it, with their regular captain absent, did suggest that the negative psychology of last year’s losing habit is making way for a more positive winning culture.

My money says the Boks will win both of their Rugby Championship clashes with Argentina fairly comfortably, which will mean they leave for the Australasian leg of their Championship campaign with the confidence that comes with five successive wins.

But here is where we perhaps need to get a sense of perspective. This is definitely a year where the Boks should be expected to beat Australia. We knew the Australians had fallen off a bit since contesting the 2015 World Cup final but a home loss to Scotland and a narrow squeak against Italy, where they had to rely on two late tries to avoid an embarrassing defeat, wasn’t expected.

When their captain, Stephen Moore, lamented the inferior Wallaby conditioning because of inferior training at Super Rugby level, it got me wondering whether the Australian national team may be set to live through a similar year of crisis to the one that the Boks endured in 2016.

There were no complaints from the Boks about conditioning after their series win and one of the notable points about their triumph was that for once it was the South Africans who out-strategised their opponents.

There is plenty of innovation being introduced around the strong foundation laid by attention to the basics, and it was the quest to perhaps over-innovate that led to the lineout problems in Johannesburg (that and the absence of regular No8 Warren Whiteley at the back of the lineout).

It has tended to be in the coaching dug-out that the Wallabies have beaten the Boks on home soil in recent years, but with Rassie Erasmus set to add even more heavyweight tactical acumen from above in his capacity as hands on director of rugby to what Brendan Venter (if he stays) and Franco Smith have been doing from below, head coach Allister Coetzee has a lot to work with.

Earlier on Saturday though the All Blacks showed in beating the Lions that their strengths in strategy remain as big a contributor to their success as their structures and systems. There will be some who will feel the Lions were contenders in the first test in Auckland despite their losing margin because of the chances they wasted, but in truth the All Blacks employed a masterful strategy whereby they attacked the Lions much closer to the fringes, the Lions’ anticipated area of strength, and wore them down that way.

There was little doubt after half an hour that the All Blacks would win as they were just forcing the Lions to make too many tackles. It will be interesting to see if the All Blacks revert to what was anticipated of them in Auckland by playing more off 10 in the second test in Wellington.

The bottom line is that the Kiwis remain in a league of their own and while the objective of the Bok coach must be to catch them so the Boks can become No1, it is not something that is going to happen quickly. After what happened in 2016, this is not a year where the Boks should be judged on how they do against the All Blacks, but rather on whether they make any inroads on the gap.

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