The Springboks need to hit their straps in the first half to defeat the All Blacks

Springbok World Cup conspiracy theories are dime a dozen at present. One of the most bizarre claims to emerge from the Republic suggests that the Boks have deliberately underperformed in marquee matches against Ireland, France and New Zealand, and are ideally placed to spring the mother of all surprises at the global tournament. But first it’s South Africa New Zealand.

Don’t worry about a likely loss against the All Blacks this Friday, the purveyors of this theory insist. Ireland, France and New Zealand are riding high at present, but will come crashing down in the World Cup play-offs in October. Meanwhile, the Boks are flying under the radar, conserving their fuel and best tactical manoeuvres for when it matters most. Insert the meme of a man tapping a finger to his temple, as if the theory is genius rather than madness.

Related: South Africa Rugby World Cup squad

In reality, the Boks find themselves in a precarious position ahead of their final World Cup warm-up. While they boast a wealth of experience across their squad and the ability to vary their approach – as seen in the recent 52-16 demolition of Wales – they haven’t beaten a top-ranked team in more than 12 months. What’s more, they don’t appear to be learning from their mistakes.

The wins in Australia and England last year were hailed as significant – at least in the context of South Africa’s poor record in those countries over the past five to ten years. It would be a stretch to suggest that the Boks made a statement with those victories, given that neither the Wallabies nor England rank among the world’s top-five teams.

Indeed, the last time the Boks made a statement was on 6 August 2022, when they hammered the All Blacks 26-10 in Nelspruit. The 16-point scoreline was massive in the context of the rivalry, at least for the South Africans, who hadn’t recorded a win of that magnitude in nearly a hundred years.

Suddenly there were whispers of a changing of the guard. Surely the Boks would back up that win with another victory in Johannesburg the following week, and clinch their first Freedom Cup title in 12 years? The stage appeared to be set for the Boks to regain control of the Rugby Championship, and to rise in the world rankings.

Seven days later, a complacent Bok side was humbled 35-23 at the spiritual home of South African rugby. That result tempered all talk of the Boks supplanting Ireland and France as the dominant force in the game.

Read more: Springboks name new centre pairing to play New Zealand

Not for the first time in the four-year cycle – and not for the last, as seen in the 35-20 loss to the All Blacks in Auckland this past July – the Boks were outplayed and outscored in the early stages. After leaking 15 unanswered points in the first 34 minutes, they were forced to play catch-up for the rest of the contest.

The Boks travelled to Europe in November in search of a big scalp, but fell agonisingly short in the marquee matches against Ireland and France. They were all over Ireland in the first half, but only managed to register six points. By contrast, Ireland made the most of their opportunities in the second stanza, and went on to win 19-16.

The game in Marseille followed a similar pattern. Pieter-Steph du Toit was shown a red card for a reckless tackle, and France raced to a 13-0 lead. The Boks clawed their way back, but France hung on for a 30-26 win. For the umpteenth time, the South Africans were made to regret a poor start to a big Test.

South Africa New Zealand preview

It’s not clear why the Boks take so long to settle or build momentum in these big matches. They’ve been particularly slow out of the blocks against New Zealand in recent times. Coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have presided over three wins and a draw in nine matches against the All Blacks since 2018. The Boks have trailed the All Blacks at half-time on five occasions.

Those half-time stats don’t tell the full story, though. The Boks were 12-0 down after 17 minutes in Wellington back in 2018, 15-0 down after 34 minutes at Ellis Park in 2022, and 17-0 down after 16 minutes at Mount Smart Stadium this past July. This Bok group has claimed a number of remarkable comeback victories over the past six years. They fought back from a 21-point deficit to beat England 42-39 in Johannesburg in 2018, and rallied from that 12-point deficit in Wellington to beat the All Blacks 36-34.

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But as the trend has continued in subsequent seasons, they haven’t always managed to get over the line, as seen in the narrow defeats to Ireland and France, and in the recent loss to the All Blacks in Auckland. When you reflect on all those poor starts and narrow defeats, you start to wonder where they might be if not for their first-half failings.

If they had started well at Ellis Park last year, they may have beaten the All Blacks and clinched the Freedom Cup, and gone on to win the Rugby Championship. More clinical and disciplined showings across the first 40 in Dublin and Marseille may have resulted in monumental wins. Ultimately, the Boks, rather than Ireland, may have finished 2022 as the undisputed kings of Test rugby, and favourites for the 2023 World Cup crown.
As it stands, they have yet to win consistently against the top teams, and do not deserve the tag of World Cup favourites. Some fans will argue that this is ideal, and that the Boks are at their best when they are underdogs. They will say that the Boks won the 2019 World Cup even though New Zealand were pre-tournament favourites and England were widely tipped to win the final.
What some people often forget, though, is that the Boks had beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand prior to that World Cup, and had won the 2019 Rugby Championship a couple of months before the tournament in Japan. They had also beaten England in a three-Test series staged in 2018, and had every reason to believe that they could beat Eddie Jones’s side again at the World Cup.
This time round, however, they have fewer big results and ultimately less belief in the bank. If they don’t buck the first-half trend when facing the All Blacks at Twickenham this Friday, and if they don’t claim at least one big win over a top-ranked side, they will head to France with hope rather than belief that another World Cup title is within reach.
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