History beckons for the Boks as World Cup defence kicks off
The South African squad arrived in France in top form, bristling with world-class players.
The four years between Rugby World Cups have been anything but normal for everyone. For the world champion Springboks they couldn’t have been harder, yet somehow they’ve arrived in France in fine fettle.
The burning question is whether the Boks are good enough to win Rugby World Cup 2023. The simple answer is yes. But they could lose in a tough quarterfinal on a marginal call. That’s how fine the margins are between the world’s top four teams.
Any one of France, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa could win this tournament, and two of them won’t make it past the quarterfinals, thanks to the dreadful decision to do the pool stage draw three years ago.
The rugby landscape was a vastly different place in the midst of Covid. The Boks were still ranked No 1 when the draw was done in late 2020, even though they didn’t play a Test in the entire year thanks to the pandemic.
What happened with the draw?
That decision was made as part of a quid pro quo in which France guaranteed more income for World Rugby in return for an earlier competition draw.
The theory was that it would give fans more time to apply for tickets and plan their trips, which in turn would boost numbers and allow the French organising committee a chance to recoup its extra income guaranteed to World Rugby.
It has worked on a commercial level. The tournament is sold out. For the 48 games, 2.8 million tickets have been sold. But it didn’t work on a competitive level. Three of the world’s top five teams at the start of the tournament are in two pools: Ireland (1), South Africa (2) and Scotland (5) are in Pool B; France (3) and New Zealand (4) in one pool.
Only two of the world’s top five teams can make the semifinals thanks to the draw, which opens the competition for out-of-form teams such as England and Australia to make it to the last four with relative ease.
But that’s history; the tournament is here. France and New Zealand got things going with a blockbuster Pool A fixture on September 8 and the Boks or Scotland will go a long way towards securing a playoff spot when they clash in Marseille on 10 September.
There is much talk about other favourites, but the Springboks are formidable.
The plan was always to arrive in France with player depth and form, and it’s fair to say coach Jacques Nienaber and his team have achieved these objectives.
Every position barring flyhalf, after Handre Pollard failed to make the selection date cutoff to prove his fitness, has two world-class players who are almost interchangeable. Just the selection for the Scotland match underlined how vast their options are.
Targets have been met
Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie, Andre Esterhuizen, Kwagga Smith and Jean Kleyn, who all starred in a record win over the All Blacks two weeks ago, didn’t make the 23.
The Boks have won five of six Tests this season, including a record win over Wales (52-16) in Cardiff and the sensational 35-7 demolition of the All Blacks at Twickenham. Planning has worked; targets have been met.
Another factor that is worth considering is that the Boks’ Rugby World Cup record is unmatched. They are built to play high-pressure, win-at-all-costs rugby.
Since they made their entry into the tournament, in its third instalment in 1995, the Boks have won three titles out of seven. That’s a 43% winning rate. The All Blacks have won three out of nine, for 33%.
The Boks have played 43 matches at Rugby World Cups and have won 36 for an 84% winning ratio. Only the All Blacks, who have played in every tournament since its inception in 1987, have a better record. New Zealand have also lost seven matches, but have played 57 games for an 86% winning ratio.
The Boks’ direct game plan, which isn’t to be confused with a lack of try-scoring ability, suits playoff rugby.
They defend manically and with structure, have the best set piece in the world and are formidable at the breakdown. They don’t overcomplicate, yet play at an intensity when on a roll that few can live with.
“For us, favourite or non-favourite, it doesn’t influence the game. We can’t control who’s the favourites,” Nienaber said.
“The reality is that it doesn’t have any bearing on us, [nor will it] have bearing on Scotland or France, for that matter. It’s what you as a team believe within the group.
“How prepared are you? How much effort did you put in? How hard did you train? How did you make sure that you have ticked all the boxes in getting yourself prepared for the Test against Scotland? That is the reality.
“If you are the favourite or not the favourite, or the underdog or not the underdog, it’s not going to make Scotland perform better or worse, or us better or worse.”
At the past two World Cups, the Boks lost their opening matches, suggesting they are slow starters. Japan’s famous 34-32 win over the Boks in Brighton in 2015 put South Africa on the back foot, but they rallied to make the semifinals and win the bronze medal.
Four years later they lost 23-13 to the All Blacks in the opener, which turned on one or two moments. They went on to win the title.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
A plan was laid out in 2018
This time a slow start could be devastating. “Winning your first match in a World Cup doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up winning or losing the Cup. It’s just history.
“It’s nice for the pundits and it builds up the game, but does it have an influence on [whether] you’re going to win the World Cup or not? No,” said Nienaber.
The plan was laid out in 2018: win RWC 2023. They won the title in 2019, but the plan never changed and only became more of a challenge. A record fourth title and becoming the second team to win it back-to-back is the only goal. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.