2017 was better — but a long way from good for the Boks
Two of their four losses were by such alarming margins the only conclusion is that their future does not look bright
Statistically, 2017 was an improvement for the Springboks after the previous season‚ which was the worst in the professional era‚ but it was still a long way off being a good season.
Coach Allister Coetzee was given a stay of execution after his side won only four of its 12 Tests in 2016‚ and by the end of 2017‚ when the Boks trudged out of Cardiff after another defeat‚ his bosses were ruing their decision to keep him on.
The Boks won seven of 13 Tests in 2017‚ drawing two and "only" losing four Tests. But of those four losses, two were by such alarming margins and came from such pathetic performances there was no way to escape the conclusion that the trajectory remains downwards.
Losing 57-0 to the All Blacks in Albany‚ the heaviest defeat in 126-years of Springbok rugby‚ was a low point. But it was not as bad as the 38-3 loss to Ireland in Dublin two months later.
At least during the All Blacks’ debacle you could argue that the world champions played their best game of the year and enjoyed one or two moments of good fortune. It was still an inexcusable result and performance, but it occurred against the world’s best team having a great day.
Despite winning their first five Tests of the year‚ talk of a Bok resurgence was tempered in most serious analyses of their season.
Ireland didn’t even have to play that well in Dublin to destroy an inept Springboks, who appeared to be stunned by the home team’s tactic of hoisting up-and-unders.
Scrum-half Conor Murray and fly-half Johnny Sexton rained accurate, contestable kicks on a Bok back-three that had no answer to them. Ireland gained so much possession and territory through a tactic everyone knew was coming, from the media to fans — but seemingly not the Bok coaching staff — that it was embarrassing.
Losing 24-22 to Wales at the end of a long season was as predictable as it was miserable. Wales were missing 14 key players from flank Sam Warburton to star centre Jonathan Davies and wing George North. It was a chastening outcome.
Despite winning their first five Tests of the year‚ talk of a Bok resurgence was tempered in most serious analyses of their season. Swatting a spineless France aside over three Tests in June was hardly an indication of the Boks’ form but rather of the paucity of the opposition.
French rugby is in a terrible state‚ with the national side winning only three of 11 Tests in 2017‚ while also drawing against Japan.
Two wins over Argentina were, again, no real measure of whether the Boks had actually improved in 2017 because the Pumas have fallen off a cliff since making the semi-finals of Rugby World Cup 2015.
Argentina only won two of 12 Tests in 2017 — against Georgia and Italy — and have only won six of their last 25 Tests since the World Cup.
Two draws against the Wallabies was another below par return for the Boks because Australia are an ordinary team too. The Boks snatched a 23-23 draw in Perth‚ and failed to put the Wallabies away at altitude in Bloemfontein in the return game. A 27-27 draw was like a loss for the home team.
The Aussies won seven of 14 Tests in 2017 and their season was only saved by a 23-18 win over a lethargic New Zealand in a virtually meaningless third Bledisloe Cup match after the Rugby Championship. Not beating the Wallabies at home was poor by the Boks.
Another low point was that after losing 25-24 to an under-strength All Blacks in Cape Town after they had already captured the Rugby Championship‚ Coetzee’s tone suggested the Boks had turned a corner.
It couldn’t be called a celebration of defeat, but there was an element of satisfaction stemming from the Bok camp after running the All Blacks so close‚ which underlined how far standards have fallen — losing at home is considered satisfactory.
"Our performances this season have showed that our processes are on track‚" Coetzee said when assessing the Rugby Championship. "We just needed two points [against the All Blacks at Newlands] to win. We are heading in the right direction. In both matches Australia we were in it and could have won it‚ but did not. The 57-0 defeat in Albany was not going to define us."
He said that the players are enjoying playing for the Springboks and have "a massive work ethic. We can fix some things‚ like the scrum. But working for the mate next to you; that is something you cannot coach and that makes me so proud to see how they play for each other".
The Boks finished third in the Rugby Championship yet again while the All Blacks continued to pull away from the field. The All Blacks went through the tournament unbeaten for a second straight year and took their Rugby Championship record to an incredible 30 wins in 33 matches with only two defeats and a draw over six years.
The Boks’ record now reads played 33‚ won 14‚ lost 16 and drawn three.
The unfounded optimism shown after losing to the All Blacks was quickly shot down when Ireland humbled the Boks a month after Newlands. A ragged one-point win over France and a predictable 35-6 win over an Italian side that looked incapable of scoring a try if the match lasted a week did little to paper over what was another season of failure.