Why the game against the All Blacks is vital
That we are even discussing the possibility of the Boks making the final is in itself remarkable
Readers will be interested to know that rugby players make a distinction between a wet and a slippery ball. A wet ball, they say, is a wet ball throughout — as, say, the result of rain. A slippery ball, by contrast, is a partially wet ball, where humidity and sweat have rendered it as slippery as, say, Bheki Cele when faced with last week’s crime statistics.
The ball the Springboks played with in their recent friendly against Japan in Yokohama was a slippery one, and it is likely to be just as slippery when they play the All Blacks in their much-awaited match on Saturday.
The Japan friendly was played at 7pm Yokohama time, in 31°C heat, and sweat was running off Handré Pollard’s forearms in, well, torrents. The game against New Zealand will be played in similar conditions and at the same time of day.
Sweat, high levels of humidity and slippery balls, then, are going to be an important part of the World Cup in September — less so as the tournament hits October and temperatures begin to cool.
What we’ll see is a tournament of two halves.
Japanese humidity is partly accounted for by the season and partly due to geography. Yokohama, where the Springboks will play New Zealand, is only a few degrees south of the 40° line of latitude, a line that takes in Beijing, Ankara, Madrid and New York City as it moves westward from Japan. Other Rugby World Cup games will be played relatively far north and south of this line.
Temperatures are one thing, statistics another. The stats tell us, for example, that no side who have lost their opening game have gone on to win the World Cup, which makes the game against the All Blacks absolutely vital.
Those with a good memory for these types of things will remember the 36-0 pasting England got from the Boks in their opening fixture in the 2007 World Cup.
England didn’t win the thing that year but after their horrendous beginning they gave it a damn good try. They beat Australia narrowly in an arm-wrestle of a quarterfinal in Marseilles, following it up with a win against France in the semi, a side over whom they seemed then — and still seem, frankly — to hold some kind of spell.
As we all know, England came up against SA again in the Paris final, and while it was much closer this time (15-9) they still lost. The moral of the story is clear: win your opening game. That is, if you believe in this particular bit of stats lore.
That we are even discussing the possibility of the Boks making the final is in itself remarkable. Cast your mind back, for example, to 2016, not that long ago, when Springbok rugby was in such a hopeless state that they lost to Italy in Florence. A year before that, unbelievably, they lost to Japan in Brighton.
Andries van Schalkwyk, a loose forward formerly of the Southern Kings, scored the first of Italy’s two tries against SA. Bryan Habana had yet to hang up his star-spangled boots, and Patrick Lambie (remember him?) was directing matters from flyhalf.
Allister Coetzee, a man who will not cause rugby historians sleepless nights as they try to weigh his contribution to the national cause, was still the Springbok coach.
Under him, the Boks slipped to sixth in the world. We are now in fourth position, having won six of our last 10 games, with a 16-16 draw to New Zealand and a one-point defeat to England during last autumn’s European internationals. SA also won this year’s southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.
There is reason to be cautiously optimistic, particularly as Brodie Retallick, as smart and effective a lock as there is in the world game, may be out of the All Black picture (due to injury) until after the pool stages.
Even if defeating the All Blacks proves to be beyond the Boks, their section of the draw is structured in such a way that their likely quarterfinal opponents will be either Ireland or Scotland.
Humidity and wet balls aside, fasten your seatbelts. We’re in for a slippery ride.