DURBAN – This time last year, the Blitzboks had just been crowned world champions, the Junior Springboks were bronze medallists in the World Under-20 Championship and the Springboks had whitewashed France in a three-Test series.
Food for thought indeed if we consider that today South African rugby is close to the exact same scenario. The only difference is that the 2018 Boks slipped up in their final Test against their northern hemisphere opponents, England, and that might not be a bad thing in the long run.
The feeling at the end of last June was that there was a new dawn after the nightmare of 2016, which had seen the Boks lost eight of their 12 Tests, and that dawn grew brighter when the Boks beat Argentina home and away and then drew with Australia in Perth.
That meant a six-match unbeaten streak going into the Test against the All Blacks in Albany... but 57-0 later the Boks had descended from a pink cloud into the depth of Hades - and they never quite emerged.
The question today is how much has changed from June last year? How will Rassie Erasmus’s charges perform when the heat is cranked up on September 15 in Wellington, exactly one year and one day on from 57-0?
It is hard to say, although enough boxes were ticked in the series against England to suggest Erasmus is on the right path. But as the coach keeps warning us, he is going to need all 18 Tests at his disposal before the World Cup for his plan to ultimately come together.
The big positive is that there is clearly an esprit de corps in the squad, a fighting spirit that was wonderfully evident in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.
This stems from players all being on the same page tactically and fully understanding what is expected of them.
The value of the countrywide support for the Boks engendered by the historic Siya and Beast milestones cannot be underestimated, nor can the elimination of the transformation bugbear that has dogged so many coaches - in one swoop Erasmus tackled the uneasiness out of that South African reality and he now handles it on his own terms.
And much has been made of the impact of astutely selected overseas players. Duane Vermeulen, Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk were sensational, and the good news is that while Vermeulen is lost to Japan for the Rugby Championship, Le Roux and De Klerk’s English clubs will again release them.
Also, Vermeulen’s departure is largely negated by the return to fitness of former captain Warren Whiteley, while there are also pedigreed stars in Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager returning.
The negative is that the fragilities of a new, immature squad were exposed at Newlands. This time when England took a grip on the game, they did so with the strength of a bulldog. As they shook the Boks by the scruff of their necks, the mistakes mounted - 14 penalties (to the six of England), 23 handling errors, 15 missed tackles and 19 turnovers conceded.
The focus has unfairly been solely on Elton’s poor performance but he should not be the scapegoat.
Erasmus knows that. He has also regularly punctuated his press conferences with warnings that a team that can beat the All Blacks cannot be built in a day.
In the wake of the Newlands Test, the ironic sentiment among the English rugby media was that Erasmus had done counterpart Eddie Jones a favour by fielding an experimental backline... but maybe it is Eddie who has helped Rassie in that the compelling England victory has given SA rugby a sobering slap of reality.
Indeed, Fast Eddie’s post-match crowing that his team would win a fourth Test, had there been one, was not just hot air.
The bottom line of the England series is that the Boks have had a bright new start and there is good reason for hope. But in the words of the Springbok coach, “the All Blacks are miles ahead”.@MikeGreenaway67