LUKE ALFRED: Great expectations for the Boks
Pressure is mounting as the Boks get ready to face the All Blacks in the RWC on Saturday
Even accounting for the vagaries of translation, there is something not quite right in calling a national rugby team the “Brave Blossoms”, which seems to set the bar of expectation just a tad low. I refer here, of course, to the Japanese side, who, let’s face it, sound more like a high school netball team than perhaps they should.
It was in keeping with this spirit of superiority that the Springboks saw to it that the Blossoms wilted 41-7 in a warm-up game in Kumagaya last Friday, thus preparing the way for a World Cup campaign that, SA fervently hopes, will finish in the final at Yokohama’s International Stadium on November 2.
In brushing the Blossoms aside by six tries to one (including a hat-trick to winger Makazole Mapimpi), the Boks indicated that they are as ready as they will ever be for their opening Rugby World Cup (RWC) fixture against the All Blacks on Saturday. Now it’s simply a case of kicking back, enjoying training and not wasting too much time trying to find biltong in the train station kiosks.
The fixture between the Springboks and the All Blacks is as beautifully poised as any in the first week of the tournament. This is not only because of age-old rivalries; it is because it pits a side on an upward curve (the Boks) against a team many feel have entered a slow but discernible downward spiral (the All Blacks).
Yes, there is debate in the rarefied realms of the international rugby press as to whether the New Zealanders’ demise is overstated, and, yes, there is merit in the view that Steve Hansen’s men are rugby soldiers of rare pedigree, who will be there or thereabouts come the end of October.
Then again, there has never been a better time for the Boks to beat the Kiwis, and so get their campaign off to the kind of start that will make it all the easier to dispense with others in their group: Italy, Canada and Namibia.
The most recent encounter against the All Blacks was a 16-16 draw in Wellington, with the Springboks winning narrowly (36-34) in their previous visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud. There seem to be cracks in the All Blacks’ armour, though it might just be a case of the gap narrowing between them and other nations, including SA, England, Wales and Ireland.
Aside from all this speculation, the World Cup takes place at a time of great turmoil in SA. Our politicians seem paralysed and the economy is more sluggish than a songololo.
Indeed, the general outlook can hardly be described as bullish.
Given their celebrity status, we often forget that sportsmen and women are human too, and the Springboks are well aware that the national mood is gloomy and getting darker. Our rugby players love playing with their backs to the wall. It brings out the best in them, and there is reason to believe that national expectation will be a spur.
This was not the case with the Proteas at the Cricket World Cup earlier this year, when they finished seventh out of 10.
But rugby is a different game and Rassie Erasmus’s Boks are a different team to the one they were under the dire Allister Coetzee, or under Heyneke Meyer when they lost to the Brave Blossoms in Brighton during the previous RWC.
Today’s Boks look as if they are more than capable of dealing with the burden of huge national expectations.