GAVIN RICH: New reverence for Boks is a tribute to Rassie’s sterling job in restoring pride
Japan’s notoriety for being an expensive country (after just 24 hours here, I can tell you the reputation is well-deserved), will probably limit the number of Springbok supporters at the Rugby World Cup.
That does not mean the Boks won’t be supported and there will be any lack of expectation.
On the contrary, it is hard to remember when last the Boks headed into a World Cup, which they start with a tough pool game against the All Blacks in Yokohama on Saturday, with so much expectation. It’s not just local expectation either — international commentators are backing the Boks too.
That there is so much renewed reverence for Springbok rugby is a tribute to the excellent job Rassie Erasmus has done in restoring pride and in creating a winning culture.
After the Boks were on the wrong end of a 57-0 drubbing at the hands of the All Blacks in Albany almost exactly two years ago, there’s been almost nothing to choose between SA and New Zealand at international level.
The Boks bounced back from that loss by nearly beating the All Blacks in Cape Town just three weeks later.
Erasmus aptly summed up the difference between those days and these by saying the fact that the Boks could be thrashed so comprehensively before nearly winning their next match showed they never lacked ability, but just struggled for consistency.
The brutally honest South African would agree the All Blacks, and not the Boks, were the best team at the 1995 World Cup, and probably at the 2007 event too
That was something touched on about another SA national team by a taxi driver during my stopover in Dubai en route to Tokyo. In his view, the Proteas have so often been the world’s best cricket team but have juxtaposed their periods of dominance with too many times when they’ve just been abjectly poor.
I assumed he was talking about the ODI team, for the Test team has been to the summit of the game. Mention of the Proteas’ history of failure at World Cups does introduce the caveat to all the expectation hanging over the Boks now: championship-winning teams do have to have luck go their way.
Everyone likes to refer to the 1999 World Cup semifinal tie with that infamous run-out in Edgbaston as a choke, but you can look at it another way. The Proteas had some ground to make up when Lance Klusener was joined at the crease by last man Allan Donald. The point though is that the Australians were seen as worthy World Cup winners, yet few would deny they profited from luck along the way.
Sometimes the best teams don’t win World Cups. The brutally honest South African would agree the All Blacks, and not the Boks, were the best team at the 1995 World Cup, and probably at the 2007 event too, when they were denied by some refereeing (and touch-judge) mistakes in their quarterfinal defeat to France in Cardiff.
Bundled off home
Conversely, the Boks were a much better team than their quarterfinal exit at the hands of the Bryce Lawrence refereeing freak-show in 2011 would suggest. Once they’d lost Dan Carter to injury, the All Blacks were a choke waiting to happen in that tournament. But after the Boks were knocked out, there was no-one good enough to challenge even a nervous All Black team.
Maybe it isn’t a coincidence we are referring to quarterfinals. Those are the most difficult games for any favoured team. If you get to the semifinals, you are at least assured of staying until the last week, but if you get beaten in the quarters, you are bundled off home with a fortnight to go.
If there’s going to be a day at this World Cup on which South Africans have particularly sweaty palms it will be the day the Boks play their quarterfinal.
There is just so much riding on that game, and that will particularly be the case in 2019, when most of the quarters will be contested by teams that will feel they have a realistic chance of winning the overall competition.
This weekend’s game in Yokohama should not be one of those sweaty-palm days. Regardless of who wins and who loses a game that is difficult to call, you’d expect them to go far in the tournament, and back them to meet again if they perform to their standards.
It would be a great start for the Boks if they win, but it won’t be a train smash if they lose. Provided, of course, they and their fans remain level-headed about it, a close defeat might just introduce some much-needed sense of perspective before the arrival of the winner-takes-all games that really matter.