For many of the Springboks this will be their last dance, can they succeed again?
Few athletes get the opportunity to end their career on their own terms. Fewer still enjoy the fairytale finish: winning the biggest prize in their sport and thus enhancing their legacy. Ask the star-studded South Africa World Cup side of 2011, who travelled to the tournament in New Zealand as favourites but were ultimately humbled in a quarter-final defeat to Australia.
John Smit, one of the game’s sharpest and most decorated leaders, finished his record-breaking tenure on a low. Given the anticlimactic nature of the result in Wellington, other greats such as Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez revised their decisions to retire from Test rugby, returning at various stages over the subsequent four years.
While there are notable differences between that 2011 squad and the group gearing up for a title-defence in France – more on this in a minute – it will be the last dance for many of the senior players and coaches who have been part of one of the most successful Bok sides in history.
Skipper Siya Kolisi has signed with Racing 92, but has suggested that the 2023 World Cup will be his Test swansong. Duane Vermeulen finished his club stint with Ulster earlier this year, and has confirmed that he will retire from all rugby after the global tournament in France.
It remains to be seen whether other ageing stars such as Willie le Roux will continue with the Boks in 2024. Beyond that, a large senior contingent including Le Roux, Steven Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert, Frans Malherbe, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Faf de Klerk, Vincent Koch, Makazole Mapimpi, Kwagga Smith, Cobus Reinach, Marvin Orie and Deon Fourie are unlikely to push on to the 2027 World Cup in Australia.
The Boks are also set to lose a couple of big names in their coaching staff. Jacques Nienaber has already confirmed a move to Leinster after the World Cup, while Rassie Erasmus (who is officially contracted to SA Rugby until 2025) may well bolster the Irish rugby coaching structures in the years to come. Felix Jones, who has been one of the most influential members of the backroom staff since 2019, will return to the northern hemisphere later this year to lend his insight and expertise to England.
The Boks have developed a particular style and identity over the past six years, and for this group, the 2023 World Cup will be their last dance. On the eve of the tournament, it’s fair to ask whether they have persisted with players and strategies that are well past their sell-by date – much like the Bok team of 2011 – or if they are ideally positioned to win back-to-back world titles.
Will this story end in another anticlimax, or will Erasmus, Nienaber, Kolisi and the rest enhance their respective legacies?
In one sense, it’s an unfair question, given how much they have achieved to date. Fans and critics outside of South Africa may not appreciate what this group has done for the sport over the past six years, and indeed what it has done for an increasingly troubled country.
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Results and trophies aside, they have built something enduring. Back in 2018, Erasmus restructured the entire South African rugby system, and addressed the issue of transformation. According to many of the players and key stakeholders, Erasmus’ approach to the latter has been a game changer, and is one of the reasons why this six-year period will be remembered as a watershed in South African rugby history.
To summarise, South African rugby has finally started to tap into a previously neglected demographic – which comprises 90% of the country’s population. Kolisi and his diverse team have been held up as an example of what can be achieved in this country when everyone works towards a common goal. What this group has achieved thus far will not – and should not – be forgotten.
But what would another title do for the game, and indeed the morale, in South Africa? The Bok coaches and players will hold this question in their minds over the course of their most challenging World Cup campaign to date.
They could become the first team in history to win four World Cup titles, and the first South African side to go back-to-back. Some have already scoffed at the idea that this Bok side might warrant comparison to the great All Blacks team that won successive World Cup titles in 2011 and 2015. But if they lift the Webb Ellis Cup again this October, how could they not?
These are dark times for South Africa – literally and metaphorically. Sadly, a crippling energy crisis that shows no sign of abating is not the worst of it for a nation where corruption, crime and poverty are all too prevalent. Another World Cup win won’t solve these problems, but it will give South Africans a reason to smile.
This team is driven by data and strategy as much as passion and raw emotion, and you can bet your last euro that the dynamic coaching duo has left nothing to chance in the lead-up to this campaign.
What Erasmus and Nienaber have learnt in pursuit of successive South Africa World Cup triumphs
Erasmus and Nienaber know what it takes to win a World Cup and – having served on the management team in 2011 – what it takes to lose it. Indeed, the lessons taken from that failed back-to-back attempt have informed their preparations for the 2023 event.
Back in 2011, many of the older players travelled to the World Cup with injuries, and were unable to train with the team in the lead-up to big matches. This impacted on the side’s performances, and contributed to a humiliating quarter-final exit.
Since joining the Bok set-up in 2018, Erasmus and Nienaber have implemented a train-to-play philosophy. The level of competition and ultimately the level of performance in training has improved, and that intensity and accuracy has been carried through to matchday.
The coaches have selected an ageing squad for the back-to-back attempt in France – with the 33-man group boasting an average age of 30. And yet, now more than ever, Erasmus and Nienaber are aware of the dangers of complacency, and are working to eradicate it.
The long-term buildup to this tournament has been anything but ideal. There have been times where the team has looked tired and uncertain of the game plan. The coaches have often cited the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the team did not play at all in 2020, and struggled to train together in the lead-up to the 2021 season.
More recently, the plan has come together. Nienaber has rotated his wider squad over the 2023 season, and the team has delivered a string of encouraging attacking performances that have effectively challenged the widely held belief that the Boks will offer nothing more than belligerence and box kicks at the World Cup in France. The bold display in the record 35-7 win against the All Blacks at Twickenham has forced many to revise their understanding about South African rugby, and alter their pre-tournament predictions.
The World Cup challenge may be greater – given that a resurgent Scotland and a trend-setting Ireland are in their pool – but they are better prepared and more rounded outfit now than they were four years ago. Win or lose, this group of coaches and players are set to bow out with a bang.
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