Cape Town – The Springboks ended 2022 with two emphatic wins over Italy and England, but the base for their 2023 Rugby World Cup strategy was arguably established in the defeat to France.
The defending champions – well, 14 players, along with management – have gathered in Cape Town for a three-week ‘physical and development camp’ that will finish on March 10, and were hard at work during training at Rondebosch Boys’ High.
Bok coach Jacques Nienaber said that the main reason for bringing the group together was that many of these players hadn’t really had a break since the 2021 British and Irish Lions series.
The likes of Eben Etzebeth and Frans Malherbe got married and had a brief honeymoon recently, and others such as captain Siya Kolisi, Damian Willemse and Steven Kitshoff have also enjoyed some time off in recent weeks.
But they were put through their paces by Bok head of athletic performance Andy Edwards on Wednesday, who will look to get them into prime shape physically before they rejoin their franchises for the rest of the Champions Cup and United Rugby Championship seasons.
It won’t only be about running shuttles, though, as Nienaber is sure to work through the style of play that will be needed to defend the Webb Ellis Cup successfully in France by the end of October.
There was a real shift to a more refreshing attack plan on the end-of-year tour, and while the wins over Italy and England were vital to restore confidence in the team and public, the variety in their play against the French in the 30-26 loss in Marseille – despite Pieter-Steph du Toit’s 12th-minute red card – was an eye-opener.
Yes, there was a lot of kicking from Faf de Klerk, but the Boks mixed up their play smartly, with Willemse and Willie le Roux calling the shots, and the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Damian de Allende making metres with ball-in-hand.
There was even an unusual sharing of goal-kicking duties between Kolbe, Willemse and De Klerk, and it is all part of adding to the Bok arsenal that should be way more than just about physicality and box-kicks at the World Cup.
Not playing any Test rugby in 2020 due to the Covid-19 lockdown hampered their progress, but they are catching up quickly.
“Not having 2020… we had a conversation last night about it. There were three things why we didn’t play rugby in 2020. The first question was: Was it going to be financially good for SA Rugby? The answer is no,” Nienaber said.
“The second one: Will it be beneficial for the development of the Springbok team after winning a World Cup? The answer was no. Was it beneficial for player welfare, with the lockdown that we had in 2020 – which was completely different to other areas?
“And keeping in mind, our next game was going to be the British and Irish Lions. So, 100 percent the right decision (not to play in 2020).
“But it did cost us development. That’s why last year was an interesting year. If you just go and bat for your own win percentage and the team’s win percentage, you probably wouldn’t have made changes in the second Welsh Test.
“But then a guy like Kurt-Lee Arendse would never have had the opportunity, a guy like Canan Moodie wouldn’t have come through…
“Why would you make 18 changes from one Test to another? Secure the series first! But although winning will always be our main strategic goal, squad development and creating squad depth, giving experience into players was a massive driver last year – developing on the one side, and also keep momentum on the other side.
“I think it came through at the back-end of the season. We got some nice answers, and the team is embracing the changes that we have within. We must make sure that from a leader’s perspective, we must continue driving (that).
“From a creative point of view, you must make sure that you stay creative – otherwise teams will catch up to you. So, there are certain creative things that we are trying to do.”
The Bok boss was adamant that they can’t rely on the 2019 game-plan in Japan to clinch a fourth title in France, where they face a tough Pool B against Ireland, Scotland, Tonga and Romania.
And then it’s either the All Blacks or the French in the quarter-finals…
“Also from an arrogant side, we mustn’t become arrogant and say we won the previous World Cup in 2019, and if we do the same things, we are probably going to win it again – that’s arrogance,” Nienaber said.
“You have to change, you have to adapt, you have to evolve… Last year was big for us in terms of that, and where we are now, we got to grips with the changes that we wanted a little bit at the back-end of the season.
“If you want change, you probably start that on the training fields – without the pressure of winning and losing. And then you want that change to come through in a Test match, where there’s pressure and where your country’s name is at stake – and that takes time.
“So, it’s not always a physical development, but a mental development, where you have to be put in a situation where you have to make a decision. And sometimes you must fail at that decision, because that will help you…
“I know that sounds funny, but failure is a way of evolving and developing. All of us, when we started riding a bike, none of us just got onto a bike and just started riding it – you fell off a couple of times.
“So, it will take some time.”