Can Boks buck run of bad luck and rise up to win world cup?
The muscle is there to defeat the All Blacks, but a skills shortage could trip them up
The question many South Africans will be asking after a year in which the Springboks took one step forward and one step back is if their team can win the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The Boks may have been wildly inconsistent with seven wins from their 14 Tests in 2018, but they occasionally showed they are capable of scaling heights that seem beyond their reach.
With so many mediocre results in the season, their undoubted highlight was their win over the All Blacks in Wellington. It shouldn’t just imbue them with self-belief ahead of the world cup, but stands as a beacon of hope for the other teams with a realistic chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in November.
That win would also have created doubt in the All Black, who had been near invincible at home. They lost in Wellington to the British and Irish Lions in 2017 and drew the deciding Test at Eden Park a week later. Their only other home defeats in the last decade came against France at Carisbrook in 2009 and the Springboks in Hamilton in the same year.
Apart from that win, the Boks can draw inspiration from their most recent engagements against the All Blacks. On aggregate only one point separates the two teams in their last three meetings.
In 2018, the Boks won by two points in Wellington‚ lost by the same margin at Loftus Versfeld‚ while 2017’s clash at Newlands was a tension-filled one-point win for the All Blacks. In their most recent meeting against the All Blacks at the world cup, in London in 2015, the men in black won 20-18 in the semifinal.
The Boks continue to have the muscle to combat the All Blacks at close quarters but still have a skills shortfall to consistently test the Kiwis in the less populated areas of the field.
Still‚ with enough composure in the cauldron of a world cup knockout match, they can upset the All Blacks, but the odds remain against them. The two teams will get the opportunity to suss each other out when they meet in the pool stages in Yokohama on September 21. It may provide a portent of what’s to come in the tournament.
As for the other leading contenders‚ the Boks at the very least have an equal shot.
Ireland have been holding their own against the Boks. In their most recent outing in November 2017‚ Ireland thoroughly dominated the Boks under Allister Coetzee. It is hard to think the Boks can be poorer than they were on that miserable evening in Dublin.
Wales too seemed to have grown an arm and a leg in recent encounters with the Springboks. Since losing against the Boks in the quarterfinals of the last world cup‚ Wales have beaten SA in four consecutive matches.
The only other team to boast two wins over the Boks under Rassie Erasmus is England.
Australia‚ however‚ seem a little further off the pace than the Boks or indeed England. France and Argentina are undoubtedly capable of springing a one-off surprise, but winning three knockout matches en route to the title seems well beyond them.
The Boks cannot be ruled out as potential world cup champions, but they will have to find the kind of consistency we have not seen for years. They will also‚ you sense‚ require an inordinate amount of good fortune.