DURBAN – The last two occasions the Springboks hosted the All Blacks in Pretoria the visitors behaved rather rudely, trashing the Boks at Loftus to the tune of 52-16 in 2003 and three years later crushing Jake White’s team 45-26.
But it is the former rout that everybody remembers and which lives on in infamy because the Boks were utterly and unforgettably vanquished.
Remember the Jan van Riebeeck jokes? That match was just three months out from the Rugby World Cup in Australia where the Boks were lined up to play the New Zealanders in a quarter-final in Melbourne (it was a given that South Africa would lose to a potent England team in their Pool C match to finish second and play the winners of the All Blacks’ Pool).
The message drummed into the Highveld turf that forlorn afternoon was that the Boks would be no more than also-rans at the World Cup and would perish in the quarters. It all came sadly to pass, with the All Blacks barely breaking sweat in winning 29-9 at Docklands Stadium.
After that beating at Loftus, Corne Krige commented that he had been horrified to see certain teammates give up in the Bok jersey. The unfortunate captain was most certainly not one of them, nor was left wing Ashwin Willemse, who fought bravely and was rewarded with the Boks’ sole try, at the death.
Krige, mortified by the events at Loftus, reportedly had his players pledge to do 52 push-ups a day until the teams next met. Of course, he was whistling in the wind ... some things just cannot change in three months.
Krige aptly named his autobiography “The Right Place at the Wrong Time,” alluding to the fact that Bok rugby was in a very bad place between the 1999 and 2003 World Cups. It was an era where South Africa had few star players and plenty of mediocre ones. It periodically happens. For then frantic coach Rudolf Straeuli, it was lean pickings, which largely explains why there were so many one-cap wonders around that time.
Straeuli, a Bok sentimentalist, (vainly) scoured the land in search of rough diamonds. He was convinced hulking beasts were lurking undiscovered in forgotten dorps. He dug for coal in Witbank, for instance, where he unearthed (remember them?) Pierre Uys, Marco Wentzel and Christo Bezuidenhout, the latter making his debut at age 33 as a loosehead prop who was going to destroy the England front row in the Pool C decider.
Barren times indeed ... the only manna falling from heaven being Bok caps as Straeuli’s restless search raged on.
In mitigation of Straeuli, among the misfires on that black day in Pretoria were some future heavy artillery in Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith and Wickus van Heerden, all of whom went on win the World Cup in France in 2007.
The total caps in that starting side was just 266. White’s team three years later had just short of double that number, which would explain why they had the wherewithal to one week later turn the tables on the All Blacks in the infamous Battle of Bafokeng in Rustenburg.
The Loftus loss that year was the fifth in a row for the Boks and they went to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium with their coach in the sights of the SA Rugby firing squad.
John Smit famously said after that 21-20 win, secured by a last-minute Andre Pretorius penalty, that his players were so “gatvol” of losing that they “no longer gave a damn” and they played with a fitting ferocity. The All Blacks responded in kind and the result was a throwback to the amateur era when anything went in matches against the old foe.
One year later the Boks were world champions.
All of this brings us to Saturday’s latest chapter of Springbok-All Black rivalry at Loftus (the other matches between the teams at this ground saw a Bok win in 1970; the historic series win for the All Blacks in 1996; and the pre-World Cup win for the All Blacks in 1999 - incidentally the Boks turned that loss around a few months later by beating the Kiwis in a World Cup play-off for third place, in Cardiff).
Can this Bok team emulate Dawie de Villiers’ team that beat the All Blacks 17-6 in South Africa’s only win over New Zealand at Loftus?
The encouraging news is that Rassie Erasmus’ team falls more into the category of the 2006 side than the 2003 one in terms of Test caps (around 500) and experience. And they have the belief garnered through blood-and-sweat victories over the Wallabies and All Blacks.
The trouble is the All Blacks want revenge. They are unaccustomed to losing, and as their coach Steve Hansen puts it, they “want to make things right,” which we know is a chilling and monumental understatement...