Lood de Jager of the Springboks competes in the line out during the Rugby Championship match against the All Blacks at QCB Stadium in Townsville, Australia, September 25 2021. Picture: MATT ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES
Lood de Jager of the Springboks competes in the line out during the Rugby Championship match against the All Blacks at QCB Stadium in Townsville, Australia, September 25 2021. Picture: MATT ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES

SA’s loss to New Zealand in the 100th rugby Test between the two nations last weekend was not met with the usual anguish by Springbok fans.

This was particularly notable not only because it was a historic game, but also because it was only won by the All Blacks with a penalty kick in the dying moments after a series of silly errors by the men in green, making it a game captain Siya Kolisi’s team could — and probably should — have won.

Yet there was none of even the standard gnashing of teeth that normally follows a loss to the Boks’ arch-rivals. Perhaps it was the fact that despite the loss, the team’s performance was so much better last weekend than it had been the previous two, when the Springboks were comprehensively outplayed by Australia’s Wallabies.

Perhaps it was simply relief that, unlike the Wallabies, the All Blacks didn’t appear to have a confident answer to SA’s much-derided “boring” kicking game, which won the Springboks their third World Cup in 2019 and a prized victory over the British & Irish Lions earlier this year.

Either way, the 100th Test milestone, which happened to take place almost exactly a century after the first occasion the two teams met in Dunedin on August 13 1921, is now water under the bridge. They will play each other again this weekend in the final match of the 2021 Rugby Championship, but it is a dead rubber. Little but pride is at stake, since the title has already been comprehensively clinched by the men in black.

The Springboks have vowed to put in a “colossal” effort to avoid going home with four losses out of four to show for their Antipodean venture, and the All Blacks will undoubtedly be keen to remain unbeaten in this year’s competition, but fans will be forgiven for failing to lose sleep in excited anticipation.

None of this points to an especially exciting outlook for South African rugby. SA Rugby Union director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, an astute student of the game who as a former Springbok, knows SA’s strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone, has achieved more since 2017 than the country had a right to expect given the headwinds he has faced, especially the constant stream of talented SA players lured north by the promise of small fortunes in hard currencies for playing in Europe.

But can those successes be repeated in the coming seasons given that the Springboks’ one-dimensional style of play has now been so effectively countered by one team and will no doubt be found out by others? 

The answer is yes, and the blueprint is already on the table. Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber is correct to resist pressure to bin the game plan that has served SA so well and switch to the free-flowing, running game some pundits — most of them seemingly Englishmen still smarting from the World Cup final and Lions tour losses — insist is the way rugby should be played.

Apart from the hypocrisy of this stance coming from a nation whose limited success in recent years has been down to a similarly “boring” forward- and kicking-dominated style of rugby, Erasmus has proven time and again that he has one of the most innovative rugby minds in the game. Springbok rugby will not stagnate. The coaching staff may not throw caution to the winds, but there will undoubtedly be change.

Some of that change must be deliberate, prompted by the way other teams have adapted the way they play us, and some will be forced upon SA rugby — and the rest of the rugby world — by the seismic change that has occurred in the southern hemisphere through the break-up of the Super Rugby competition as we know it.

With SA’s regional franchises set to play mainly against European teams in future, while New Zealand and Australian teams join a Pacific Island-focused competition, international rugby’s centre of gravity has shifted northwards, and all bets on the future are off.  

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