Upcoming European tour will separate the Test rugby contenders from the pretenders

Upcoming European tour will separate the Test rugby contenders from the pretenders
Springbok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick and Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

The Boks’ tough northern hemisphere schedule is also an opportunity to lay down a marker with a view to Rugby World Cup 2023.

Optimists will view the Springboks’ four-Test tour to Europe as a golden opportunity. If the Boks play to their physical and tactical potential – and have some luck with injuries – they will beat Ireland, France, Italy and England, and finish the season at the top of the World Rugby rankings for the fourth consecutive year. 

In an ideal scenario, Jacques Nienaber’s charges will deliver the most emphatic of statements in northern hemisphere conditions. They will carry that winning momentum through to a crucial 2023 season, which will culminate in a World Cup tournament in France. From there, the world champions will be ideally placed to defend their title. 

Realists, however, will be reluctant to make such predictions. 

World Cup favourite yet to emerge 

The Test landscape has changed significantly since the Boks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. There are now five or six genuine contenders for the World Cup title. 

After missing the 2020 season due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Boks have not progressed as much as they’d hoped. The All Blacks have declined, while Ireland and France have usurped the usual southern-hemisphere suspects at the top of the World Rugby rankings. 

The coming Tests will provide more answers regarding the hierarchy of Test rugby, and who deserves to be recognised as the form team a year out from the 2023 World Cup. 

Ireland and France have proved themselves against every major contender, bar South Africa, in this four-year-cycle. While the Boks have been inconsistent in 2022, they have managed to beat every team they have faced at least once. This November, they will have the chance to prove a point against Ireland and France, and to end an eight-year drought against England in Twickenham. 

Ireland beat the All Blacks twice in July to claim their first series victory in New Zealand. Rankings aside, France are the form team in world rugby, having dominated the likes of the All Blacks and Wallabies in November 2021, and swept to a Six Nations Grand Slam in March 2022. 

Ireland and France will be favourites when they host the Boks, and the conditions in Dublin and Paris will provide them with a further advantage. 

Unique challenges in Europe 

The Boks haven’t won a Test in Dublin since 2012. The weather in Ireland has been particularly bad in recent weeks, and the Bok coaches and players are expecting wet and torrential conditions at the Aviva Stadium on 5 November. 

The Boks haven’t lost to France since 2009. However, since Fabien Galthié took charge in 2020, Les Bleus have bolstered their defence and kicking game, and have transformed into a more consistent and dangerous beast. 

Under Galthié, France have employed a similar game plan to that of the Boks – although they have a higher conversion rate on attack. Les Bleus may fancy themselves in a physical, tactical arm wrestle at Stade de France on 12 November. As one source put it: “Prepare for a repeat of the 2019 World Cup semifinal between South Africa and Wales.” 

Italy beat Wales in Cardiff earlier this year to end a 36-game losing streak in the Six Nations, but are unlikely to push the Boks close in Genoa on 19 November. 

Nienaber and company will be desperate to prevail in the last tour fixture against England. The Boks came within a score of winning at Twickenham in 2018 and 2021. As it stands, they haven’t beaten England at the Home of Rugby since 2014. 

Boks: Manie Libbok

Manie Libbok at DHL Newlands Stadium on 3 October 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Shaun Roy / Gallo Images)

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Pollard will be missed 

It’s worth noting that the Boks will be without several key players for the duration of the tour. 

Flyhalves Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies have been ruled out. While utility back Damian Willemse showed some form at No 10 at the back end of the Rugby Championship, his game management and tactical kicking will be under more scrutiny in the wet conditions of Europe. 

In the department of goal-kicking, Manie Libbok and Sacha Mngomezulu have been preferred to Willemse at the Stormers. Nienaber has confirmed that Willemse is unlikely to kick for goal in the coming Tests and that another player – possibly scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse – may be given the responsibility. 

The absence of a recognised kicker, who has the experience of nailing clutch kicks in adverse weather at Test level, must be a concern ahead of contests against Ireland, France and England – which may be decided by a couple of points. Pollard, the team’s first-choice kicker, may be missed. 

Lukhanyo Am is another notable absentee. The outside centre sustained a serious knee injury in the first Test against Australia in September, and will only return to play later this year. He’s an important player for South Africa – particularly on defence – and the pressure is on Jesse Kriel to fill the void this November. 

While SA Rugby has managed to secure the release of Kriel and eight other senior Boks based in Japan for the duration of the tour, it’s unlikely that Jasper Wiese (Leicester), Duane Vermeulen (Ulster), Cheslin Kolbe (Toulon) and Trevor Nyakane (Racing) will be available for the final fixture against England, as it falls outside of the international window.  

The upshot is that the Boks will be without these key players – and perhaps several others, if injuries take their toll – when they arrive at Twickenham in search of an important win. 

Sacha Mngomezulu of the Springboks U20 during the U20 International Series match between Junior Springboks and Argentina at DHL Newlands on 3 July 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

Three out of four a successful outcome 

The Boks could not have asked for a tougher schedule this November. Even if they manage to prevail in Dublin, they will know that a greater challenge awaits in Paris seven days later. 

Back-to-back wins against physical teams such as Ireland and France are likely to come at a cost. A battered and bruised Bok side – which will be missing a number of players already – may be there for the taking in the fourth tour clash at Twickenham. 

A realistic view, of course, is not necessarily a negative view. Few Bok teams have gone unbeaten on a tour to Europe. It’s been nine years since South Africa won three Tests on an end-of-the-year sojourn. With that in mind, a three-from-four return this November should be hailed as a success. 

It’s hard to say which of the three big fixtures is the most important with a view to the 2023 World Cup. 

The Boks will face Ireland in the pool stages of the global tournament, so they will be desperate to strike a psychological blow this November. They will want to continue their winning run against France, given there’s a chance that they will face Les Bleus in the World Cup quarterfinals. 

If the Boks advance to the latter stages, they may come up against England, who are on the weaker side of the draw and thus favourites to progress to the semifinals. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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