Springboks vs All Blacks: A rugby rivalry for the ages
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The resurgence of the Springboks under Rassie Erasmus has reignited their age old rivalry with the All Blacks in time for the momentous occasion of the 100th Test between the countries in the 100th year since they first met.
The rivalry was born in 1921 in frosty Dunedin and was at its closest in terms of results in the 75 years of the amateur era, and has been seriously tested in a post 1995 modern era that has seen New Zealand dominate world rugby.
But since 2016 that outright Kiwi dominance has waned a wee bit, as the Kiwis would say, and it is the tightness of the recent matches between the Boks and the All Blacks that have had South African hearts aflutter and New Zealanders welcoming back a genuine challenge to their dominance.
In 2018, with Erasmus at the helm for the Boks, the teams cancelled each other out with a home and away aggregate score of 66-66 following the 36-34 Bok win in Wellington and the 32-30 All Blacks victory in Pretoria; while the previous encounter between the sides had seen the visiting Kiwis squeak home 25-24 in Cape Town.
In 2019, the teams drew 16-16 in Wellington and then in the World Cup, while the All Blacks beat the Boks in a tense pool match, it was the South Africans that went on to win the Webb Ellis Trophy.
This nip and tuck of recent matches has been celebrated by rugby purists in both countries who have treasured the rivalry between the countries, but had wept at the alarming discrepancy between the sides in 2016 and 2017 when the All Blacks ruthlessly won 41-13, 57-15 and 57-0.
Over three-quarters of a century of amateur rugby, during which the two countries dominated world rugby, the Springboks had a superior record to the All Blacks.
In short, up until the first post-isolation Test between South Africa and New Zealand in 1992, the Springboks had won 20 Tests against the All Blacks, the latter had won 15, and two matches had been drawn.
The Boks had won a series in New Zealand (1937) but the All Blacks had never won a series on South African soil. As the rivalry progressed into the post-World War II era, the Boks defeated the All Blacks eight times in a row, and nine times out of 10, including the famous “All Blacked out” series of 1949 in South Africa in which the Kiwis had no answer in three Tests.
The Kiwis responded with a 2-1 home series win in 1956; the Boks reciprocated with a 2-1 win at home in 1960; the All Blacks then won 3-1 in New Zealand in 1965 only to be overturned 3-1 in South Africa in 1970.
South Africa again won 3-1 in South Africa in 1976 only to lose 2-1 in New Zealand in 1981 in an incredibly dramatic tour that divided the country on the issue of “sports versus politics”.
Whatever your stance, that tour entrenched the colourful relationship between the two rugby-mad countries.
In 1986, an unofficial All Blacks Cavaliers side (missing two conscientious objectors in John Kirwan and David Kirk), lost a series in South Africa that again had New Zealanders on the one hand demonising apartheid but with another hand tuning the TV into the rugby.
The rivalry thankfully enjoyed a bright new dawn in 1992 in first the post-isolation Test in which the Kiwis squeaked home at a reverberating Ellis Park, with the late James Small spilling a pass at the end of the game to surrender what would have been a match-clinching try.
The Boks then got it wonderfully right in the World Cup final at the same venue in 1995 after having lost a series in New Zealand in 1994.
And that brings us to quite possibly the most emotional celebrations the All Blacks have ever enjoyed, certainly in what I have seen in 26 years of covering international rugby. The scene was Loftus Versfeld in 1996 and the New Zealanders had snuck home against the Boks to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in a series they would win 2-1.
In the press box that day, I saw usually stony-faced Kiwi scribes weep with emotion, as did Sean Fitzpatrick and his men. The Loftus pitch was littered with All Blacks lying prone on their backs, staring to the heavens with delight. That is what it meant to New Zealand to at last win a series in South Africa.
But sadly for South Africa, that home series defeat marked a watershed in the great rivalry. From then on it has been mostly one-sided, with the New Zealand landslide held up only by the occasional Springbok obstacle.
In the 57 matches since the start of the professional era in 1996, New Zealand have won 41 Tests to South Africa's 15, with one match drawn.
The problem for the age-old rivalry is that in the professional era, the Boks have at best posted threats of a revival, with the occasional bang inevitably followed by a despairing whimper.
And the major reason for this has been that until Jacques Nienaber took over as head coach from Erasmus, there has been an unfortunate lack of continuity in the coaching structures of the Springboks, and consequently the player squad, which meant that after every four (post-World Cup) years, a new coach came in and started from scratch.
This contrasts with a New Zealand model that has seen continuity in the management of the team just about forever. Just one example of this is the fact that two-time World Cup winning coach Steve Hansen began his apprenticeship for the top job under Graham Henry in 2004, taking over as head coach in 2012, and when he bowed out in 2019 his successor, Ian Foster, had been an assistant for eight years.
Consider the following. After the 1999 World Cup, which saw the Boks beat the All Blacks in a bronze medal play-off and then again in 2000 at Ellis Park just before Nick Mallett was fired, the Boks then lost eight in a row to the All Blacks as first Harry Viljoen and then Rudolf Straeuli failed to rebuild the Boks in a post-Mallett era that had seen the Boks equal the world record for successive Test victories.
Straeuli had blooded the core of players that under Jake White would record back-to-back victories over the All Blacks across 2004 and 2005, and then win again in 2006 in Rustenburg.
That same Bok team would win three in a row against the All Blacks in 2009. That was under coach Peter de Villiers, but when Heyneke Meyer took over with a new squad and staff, the Boks lost six in a row to the All Blacks before a win in 2014.
Meyer ultimately presided over a Bok team that narrowly lost 20-18 to the All Blacks in the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup, and then there was a colossal clear-out of players and coaching staff that meant incoming Allister Coetzee was fatally impaired, and those three 50-something reverses to the All Blacks in 2016 and 2017 were the result.
The Boks under Erasmus and Nienaber are now enjoying a resurgence against the Old Foe because SA Rugby has at last seen the sense of long-term continuity instead of the Boks having to reinvent themselves after each World Cup.