At the risk of sounding pessimistic, here is a bit of trivia regarding the Springboks in Test matches in the Northern Hemisphere that puts today’s match against Ireland (7.30pm) in Dublin into perspective.
The last time the Boks won north of the equator was when they beat Argentina in the bronze medal play-off in London at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
We need no reminding that they have not won in greater Europe under Allister Coetzee - the nightmare of the 2016 tour is only a year ago ... In fact the only away match the Boks have won under Coetzee was in Salta earlier this year against the Pumas. There was a draw earlier in Perth, but the reality is that away from home the Boks are rather under- whelming.
No wonder this week in Dublin, Coetzee has been only too happy to accept the underdog status going into the tour opener. The coach cannot be blamed for getting his defence in early, so to speak, given that the Boks are truly going to have to put in a memorable performance to beat a very good Ireland team.
But that is what we expect from the Springboks ... excellent performances every time they play. That should be the norm, not the exception. The 24-25 defeat to the All Blacks in Cape Town in a classic clash must be the minimum standard the national team should deliver. In fact, Newlands was not quite good enough - the Boks should have won.
Alright, let’s not get too carried away, but the bottom line is that Springbok supporters deserve to see their team deliver the urgency and intent of that last Bok performance in every single Test. And the biggest pressure on the Boks today is to prove that the way they played at Newlands was not an anomaly and is the new standard of performance under Coetzee.
Bok scrum coach Matthew Proudfoot said early this week that the Boks know that they cannot take a step backwards from how they played against the All Blacks, and that they have to show today that there is more to this side that the occasional backlash to a humiliating defeat (in this case, the 57-0 disaster in New Zealand).
Quite right, and today we will see what the Boks are really made of under Coetzee. There can be more excuses for inept performances. We can grudgingly say that last year there were mitigating circumstances in that Coetzee only got appointed a month or so before his first Test in charge and that with no planning, a number of new players, and an under-strength backroom staff that was foisted on him, the only way was down.
The Boks started badly, lost heart and entered a downward spiral that bottomed out in Florence of all places. A Shakespearean tragedy if ever there was one, and the curtain could not have come down soon enough on 2016, although there was one last embarrassment in Cardiff.
In 2017 it has gone substantially better. The Boks have won their first five Tests but dare we point out they have not won in five subsequent Tests. To be fair, there have been two draws against the Wallabies but the reality is that if the Boks lose today, it will mean they are winless in six Tests, the pressure to win next week in Paris will be excruciating and in no time Coetzee could be back to square one, with the already sharpened knives out.
In short, today’s Test is monumentally important to the Boks of the Coetzee era. It is close to watershed time for Coetzee. This tour has to be a success if he is to be backed as the man to take the Boks to the 2019 World Cup, and the tone of the tour is always set by the first match. You don’t want to get whacked in the tour opener and be forced into a rearguard action from there.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 James Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Darren Sweetnam.
Springboks: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Francois Louw, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Uzair Cassiem, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Francois Venter.