MAKE-OR-BREAK IN MARSEILLE
Boks need Scotland’s scalp in World Cup opener to avoid making history for the wrong reasons
We spell out what it will take for the team to clinch a second successive World Cup title in France.
The Springboks made history recently when they claimed a 28-point win against the All Blacks. The 35-7 result at Twickenham sent shockwaves through the rugby community and led to a change in the World Rugby rankings on the eve of the World Cup.
After trailing behind the likes of Ireland, France and New Zealand for the better part of two years, the Boks have moved up to second in the rankings following big wins against Argentina, Wales and the All Blacks. More importantly, they have landed a substantial psychological blow on their arch-rivals ahead of a potential meeting in the World Cup playoffs.
And yet their chances of qualifying for the playoffs – let alone winning a second successive title – may hinge on the result against Scotland in the Pool B match in Marseille on 10 September.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have been drumming this message into their players since the start of the 2023 season. Though this group boasts more experience and depth than any other South African side in history, they have never faced a tougher draw, with their pool including two other top-ranked sides – Ireland (first) and Scotland (fifth) – as well as a much-improved Tonga outfit.
The clash between Ireland and the Boks on 23 September in Paris promises to be one of the biggest and best of the pool phase – along with the match-ups between France and New Zealand, and England and Argentina. How South Africa perform in that marquee fixture, however, will be largely shaped by their earlier results.
The Boks’ first game of the campaign will determine whether they take the high or low road to the playoffs. If they beat Scotland, they will set off on the high road, pushing for a win against Ireland that should catapult them to the summit of Pool B. What’s more, a positive result in Paris will ensure that they take form and confidence into the playoffs.
Defeat by Scotland, however, will set them on a very different path. The Boks haven’t lost to Scotland since 2010, and if that successful run ends in Marseille, questions will be asked about their approach and mindset ahead of the next big game against Ireland.
Pain or elation in Paris
In the low-road scenario, the match against Ireland will be do or die. If the Boks lose to Scotland and Ireland, they will make history for all the wrong reasons as they become the first South African side in history to fall short of qualifying for the playoffs.
This may seem an overly negative perspective, but it’s a picture that’s been presented by the coaches to the players over the past few months. They need to be switched on for the duration of the global tournament.
The high-road scenario sees the Boks beating Scotland and taking plenty of confidence into the next clash against Ireland. Andy Farrell’s side has won 13 consecutive matches, and should extend that winning run with victories against Romania and Tonga during the early stages of the World Cup.
Ireland will head into the match against the Boks as favourites, since they haven’t lost to South Africa since 2016, and won 19-16 in the previous encounter staged in Dublin.
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The Boks should be more battle hardened, though. They will go into the World Cup on the back of a challenging Rugby Championship campaign, as well as three warm-ups against tier-one opposition. By the time they face Ireland, they will have been tested by a dangerous Scotland attack.
If the Boks prevail against both Celtic nations, the pressure will build on their quarterfinal opponents, given all the pre-tournament predictions.
Relevance of Romania, Tonga fixtures
The coaches split the squad into A and B teams over the course of the 2019 World Cup pool phase, with the first-choice players facing New Zealand and Italy, and the second-stringers battling Namibia and Canada.
This ensured that every member of the squad got a run in the lead-up to the playoffs. Erasmus and Nienaber look set to persist with this strategy in France.
It will be interesting to see whether a loss to Scotland leads to a change in thinking on selection for the next big game against Ireland. Players who impress against Romania could also feature against Ireland.
A big win against the Eastern Europeans may be significant if Ireland, Scotland and South Africa end the pool phase on the same number of log points and wins. Tonga (15th) have made several high-profile recruitments since World Rugby changed its eligibility laws, and should be more competitive against the Boks on 1 October.
Depth a plus later in tournament
Provided that they qualify for the quarterfinals, South Africa will face a formidable challenge in the shape of their arch-rivals or the tournament hosts.
Fortunately, they will have some belief in the bank, having dominated the All Blacks in a record win at Twickenham. They’ve won seven of their past eight matches against France, and took a lot of positives out of last November’s 30-26 defeat at Marseille.
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Injuries are a part of rugby, and the Boks have endured more than their fair share at past World Cups. Much has been said about the depth of the current squad, and there’s a chance that the team will grow stronger, rather than weaker, if they call for reinforcements over the next two months. Centre Lukhanyo Am and flyhalf Handré Pollard, both recovering from serious injuries, may well rejoin the group at some stage. Reintegrating these world-class players could present the selectors with another challenge.
For now, though, the brains trust, and indeed the players, should not be looking any further than the opener against Scotland. DM
Jon Cardinelli is a sports writer.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.