DURBAN – After the June internationals the cynics pointed out that the feel-good factor of the series win over England clouded the reality that the Springboks under new coach Rassie Erasmus had a 50 percent win ratio, with two wins from four Tests played.
That would be accurate, but a more optimistic view of how the 2018 Springboks will fare as we get into the meat of the international season is the fact that the Boks have won three out of three matches featuring the best team Erasmus could pick.
June’s opening Test saw a B team travel to Washington DC to play Wales while the A team remained in Johannesburg to prepare for the first Test against England. The Ellis Park encounter was won after a stirring comeback and then the series was secured when the same Bok side won with a complete performance in Bloemfontein. The dead rubber third Test saw Erasmus experiment in accordance with his stated goal of growing depth ahead of next year’s World Cup.
Erasmus then reverted to the Full Monty for the Rugby Championship opener against Argentina last week, bringing back Malcolm Marx, Warren Whiteley and Eben Etzebeth, first-choice players who missed out against England because of injury, plus repatriating openside flank Francois Louw.
After shaking off the cobwebs of the first half in Durban, the Boks’ first action together since June, six tries were scored in a 34-21 victory that flattered the Pumas.
The Boks were in control throughout, no matter that they were behind on the scoreboard at halftime.
Erasmus, a meticulous planner who has had the season’s selections mapped out as much as possible, will privately know that he is three from three in the matches that count.
Just as he will know that he has to make it four out of four in Mendoza on Saturday evening as the two-match venture to Australasia looms ever larger.
So often the annual away matches against the All Blacks and, to a lesser degree, the Wallabies, have resembled forced marches into the Valley of Death.
The Boks have boarded the flight to Sydney and onwards as condemned men resigned to their meeting with the gallows.
And the negative mindset has been reinforced by the abject failure of South African Super Rugby teams abroad.
This year the SA teams managed just two wins out of 22 matches played in Australia and New Zealand.
The Boks last beat the Wallabies in Australia in 2013. Over history, in total the Boks have won just 12 of 38 Tests played on Australian soil.
That last victory, in Brisbane under Heyneke Meyer, is an oasis in a desert of defeats in the Queensland capital. To find another victory in Brisbane, you have to travel back in time to 1972. The Brisbane bogey struck the Boks especially hard in 2006 when Jake White’s charges were massacred 49-0 in one of the darkest days in Springbok history. Even the exceptional Bok team that beat the All Blacks three matches on the trot in 2009 slipped up in Brisbane.
One of those victories over New Zealand was in Hamilton and it is the last time the Boks beat the All Blacks away.
That win is also just one of three wins for the Boks in New Zealand over the last 24 years. Distressing and depressing is the fact that after losing to the Boks at the Waikato Stadium nine years ago, the All Blacks went unbeaten at home until the British & Irish Lions won in Wellington last year.
And this discouraging weight of historical fact is all the more reason why the Boks have to win this weekend in Argentina. A fourth win in a row for the full-strength Boks, and an away win to boot, would strengthen the positive outlook and resolve of the team ahead of their tour.
And a good win on Saturday will convince the Boks they have a good chance of beating the Brisbane bogey ahead of their trip to Wellington and the litmus test to just how good they are.