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OPINION: The Rugby World is Changing, Are the Springboks?

Is it all doom and gloom for the Springboks, or is there more at play in the rugby world?

Jeremy Proome

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South Africans, by nature, are brutal critics. We love to complain, despite living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, while also having one of the best rugby teams in the world — and I say “one of” intentionally.

The power dynamic of rugby is changing. Minnows are taking big scalps more frequently, and those teams, such as the likes of Argentina have ditched the inferiority labels and are world-class beating threats now. If critics want to write their big wins over the All Blacks and Wallabies as lucky or describe them as “inconsistent”, then they should have a hard look at the big powers in world rugby. Everyone is losing more often, and that should be the case — look at the World Sevens Series, where each leg is unpredictable with just about any team having the chance of making the playoffs and final if the ball bounces their way. This is what has helped make Sevens such a spectacle that has attracted an increasingly global audience.

The Springboks, Wallabies, and All Blacks, who were previously setting the standard for the past few decades, are indeed going through tough times — there’s no denying that. However, the question needs to be asked: are they all getting worse, or is the competition getting better?

The Springboks are still ‘World Champions’, and this badge of honour is something to be chuffed about. But, truth be told, it was attained three years ago and a lot has changed since then. As the old adage goes: you’re only as good as your last game.

And the last game wasn’t good. Throughout the encounter against the Wallabies in Adelaide, the Springboks looked tired, out of ideas, and admittedly lethargic against a youthful and excitable Aussie side. Yes, there were some shenanigans, theatrics, and admittedly poor refereeing decisions, but despite those, South Africa didn’t have the firepower and hunger to win that game regardless of what die-hard fans might think. The referee didn’t cause the gaping hole that Noah Lolesio burst through for the Wallabies’ third try, nor did he force Pollard to miss a tackle on Korobeite (great footwork, by the way) for the Aussies’ second. And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

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Of course, it’s known that an official can swing the momentum of a game, but the incessant referee complaints that consume the social media dialogue and chats around the water-cooler every Monday morning can only be valid for so long. The Springboks were bad, but more importantly, the Wallabies were good. If the Springboks focus on what they can control versus what they can’t, then the scoreline will begin to look a lot more in their favour than it has in recent times.

And this is part of the problem — there’s an expectation from the South African public for the Springboks to win each and every game. Should this actually be the case? What reasons are there to believe this? Again, the World Cup (as tough as it is to get) can’t and shouldn’t attribute a moniker of invincibility to any team currently holding it. Players change, teams change, management changes, and while there are core elements of that 2019 squad around, we’re a different beast fighting in a cage full of new challenges.

Resting on the laurels of the World Cup isn’t going to cut it. Putting all the eggs in one basket to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup is all fine and well, but without a doubt, there will be losses along the way. You can set your sights on the William Webb Ellis trophy, but whether you win or lose all your matches leading up to the tournament, there’s no guarantee you’ll win the tournament — just ask the wealth of teams who’ve had great runs and were touted as favourites leading up to the global showpiece, only to fall short to a less-prepared and hungrier team.

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And that’s essentially what it comes down to. Of course, you need to be clinical and have solid tactics in place, but at the risk of sounding like a millennial life coach, it’s the passion, desire, and hunger to be better that’ll get you the win. With all the planning, sneaky selections, bomb-squad discussions, and mastermind tactics from Nienaber, Rassie, and co., they still were outplayed by an untested and disrupted Wallaby side. Why? They wanted it more.

The point of this rambling essay is that the international Test arena is becoming less about who has the biggest guns and surviving the Tier 1 threats, and more about adapting and evolving to keep up with the changing times. Everyone is getting better while the Springboks seem overly concerned about a golden mirage in the distance. Maybe the South African coaching staff have a plan and taking a few knocks on the chin is part of the strategy, but if they think that they’ll blossom in 2023, then there may be some other teams already trampling the garden by then.

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