World Cup lessons for Boks in most competitive Six Nations ever

World Cup lessons for Boks in most competitive Six Nations ever
England's Henry Slade in action during the Six Nations rugby match between France and England in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, France, on 19 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Christophe Petit Tesson)

Coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will be watching the northern showpiece in preparation for their Rugby World Cup 2023 battles.

It’s tempting to say that the teams, players and coaches should be judged at the World Cup in France rather than in the games and tournaments that precede it.

Although that is true up to a point, it’s worth noting which teams will have the most to gain in the 2023 Six Nations and Rugby Championship tournaments, also which players have more to prove ahead of the respective World Cup squad announcements, and indeed which coaches – such as new appointments Steve Borthwick (England), Warren Gatland (Wales) and Eddie Jones (Australia) – are under pressure to address what are perennial structural problems.

The results and performances in the Six Nations will echo through to the World Cup. What’s more, coaches such as Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will be watching the northern showpiece in preparation for the cross-hemisphere battles at the global tournament.

We’re still a good seven months out from the opening World Cup game, and yet the preparation phase is already under way. And thanks to the congested schedule – and the fact that top SA players play for the Boks and year-round in northern-hemisphere club tournaments – time is short.

Opponents under the microscope

The Boks will play Scotland and Ireland in the World Cup pool phase, and possibly France, England and Wales in playoffs.

The opening game against Scotland in Marseille on 10 September will set the tone for the Boks’ campaign, while the clash against Ireland – currently ranked No 1 in the world – could determine the winner of Pool B, and whether they play France or New Zealand in the first round of the knockouts.

France have consistently beaten the world’s best teams over the past two seasons, and will be favourites to win a global tournament staged on French soil later this year. The Boks may well face Les Bleus in the World Cup quarterfinals and – should they advance – possibly England or Wales in the later stages.

Regardless of personnel and pre-tournament form, England tend to lift themselves at World Cups. Wales will fly under the radar, but have a concrete reason to believe that they can beat the Boks in a one-off – having claimed an historic win in the second Test of the series staged in SA last year.

In short, Erasmus and Nienaber will take none of those match-ups lightly. They will be watching all of the Six Nations clashes involving those teams, with a view to the World Cup. 

Falcons player Ben Stevenson is tackled high by Alex Wootton of Connacht during the Pool A Challenge Cup match between Newcastle Falcons and Connacht Rugby at Kingston Park on 21 January, 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Ireland a priority for Boks

Ireland are likely to demand the Bok coaches’ immediate attention. With respect to Scotland, they will not pose the same physical and tactical threat as Andy Farrell’s charges. If the Boks prevail in that clash at Stade de France on 23 September, they are likely to top Pool B and head into the playoffs with genuine momentum.

Despite France’s dominance across the 2022 Test season, Ireland finished the season with the No 1 ranking. Critics in the UK and Ireland are talking up their chances of winning the Six Nations – with some suggesting a Grand Slam is in the offing.

The favourites tag is bound to generate extra pressure, and it will be interesting to see how Ireland manage that during the tournament. Indeed, if they lose one or two big games, and don’t win the Six Nations title, then doubts about their big-match temperament will begin to resurface.

They boast several outstanding players, but if they lose Johnny Sexton, their talismanic leader, to a serious injury, they lose the key to their attack.


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Scotland are unlikely to win the Six Nations title, but have what it takes to force a big upset or two. Gregor Townsend’s side beat England last season and came close to knocking over the All Blacks and Wallabies during the internationals in November. They don’t have the forward resources of Ireland, but they can dominate the breakdowns on their day, and can unlock the best defences via the mercurial Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg.

A loss to Scotland for France and Ireland may prove devastating to their respective title prospects. In the same vein, the Boks will be wary of Scotland ahead of the showdown at the World Cup. Defeat in the opening game could place the South Africans on the back foot for the remainder of the campaign. With that in mind, the Bok coaches should be looking for further information that will help to neutralise Russell and that dangerous Scotland attack.

Boks are looking promising in third year of World Cup cycle

Siya Kolisi of South Africa and Len Ikitau of Australia during the Rugby Championship Test match between the Wallabies and the Springboks at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, Australia, on 3 September 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / DEAN LEWINS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)

France have more to prove

The Boks were given a taste of what to expect from France in a potential World Cup playoff when they played Les Bleus in Marseille last November. The result didn’t go their way, but the Boks produced one of their best performances of the season – in spite of Pieter-Steph du Toit’s red card in the 12th minute. The Boks will take some valuable lessons from that clash into the next meeting.

That said, how much did France learn from that encounter, and how will they take things forward in the coming Six Nations?

Some might say that they have nothing to prove, having won the Grand Slam in 2022 and all 10 of their Tests over the course of the year. Many others have installed Ireland as the best team on the planet – and that may rankle the French players and coaches.

Another successful Six Nations campaign will alter perceptions about the global pecking order, and enhance France’s reputation as the favourites for the 2023 World Cup crown. They boast a crack coaching team and have a number of world-class players, with several outstanding options at flyhalf.

But as is the case with Ireland, France’s best player and chief tactician – scrumhalf Antoine Dupont – is virtually irreplaceable. France may not pose the same threat in the big clashes if Dupont is absent due to injury.

Perhaps Les Bleus will find an answer in the Six Nations, but if Dupont starts against the likes of England and Ireland, then they may well go into the World Cup with a question mark over their depth in what is a key position. DM168

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


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