Rugby / 15 September 2019, 2:20pm / clinton van der berg
This time next week, we’ll be either basking in the afterglow of a rousing World Cup start, or wringing our hands wondering what might have been.
No matter. The journey to the summit of world rugby will be a struggle whichever way the Springboks start out. That’s why the Webb Ellis Cup is such a valuable chunk of gilded silver: it’s never easily won.
However things finally turn out, no one can claim the Boks’ preparations were anything but seamless. The Japanese hosts have taken them to heart, they came through a warm-up in decent shape and they’ve managed to stave off troubling sideshows. Given how the planets must align for World Cup success, these are important factors. There are several things out of the Boks’ control, however. Injury, for one.
Losing someone like Handre Pollard would be calamitous. Or Duane Vermeulen.
Or Trevor Nyakane, who has already given us a little shiver. Most worrying is the influence that referees might have. The trouble is that the laws are so open to interpretation, rugby is worryingly close to an anything-goes game. The offsides law is routinely skirted - have you seen an All Black match lately? - and rucks are the lottery of the world game.
Jerome Garces of France looms as the third man for next weekend’s crucial match, a worrying omen given that he refereed South Africa’s scandalous defeat to Japan at the last World Cup.
Hopefully there will be no need to remember his name. Friendly fixtures in the preamble to the World Cup offer little hope that the breakdowns will be a picture of serenity and good judgment.
Cleanouts are more violent than ever, players fly in off their feet at regular intervals and no-arm hits are a given. Every match is a mish-mash.
We’ve seen how red cards can wreck a team’s ambitions. Come World Cup, someone’s entire world could come crashing down if an especially sharp-eyed referee applies the laws properly.
South Africa make much of their physical primacy, so this is something they must watch. It’s fine having muscle and using it, even viciously, but it must be allied to being smart and sassed.
There are many variables to a team winning a World Cup; chiefly that a team must play well.
This may sound obvious, but in running the rule over the contenders, it’s the form teams that stand out. New Zealand waxed and waned in the Rugby Championship, but they were brutal against Tonga last weekend.
England have been iffy and neither Ireland nor Wales appear to have shown their full plumage. Schizophrenic France look capable - don’t they always? - and underdone Australia are sure to have at least one powerful game in them.
Perhaps the same is true of Argentina, struggling for form, but likely to be fired up for their opening showdown with France, Los Pumas having won two of the last three.
Whatever your bent, the next couple of weeks ought to be a thrill ride. Organisation will be superb and the pageantry will ensure the tournament is given the status and standing it deserves.
Established stars will soar, new heroes will emerge and villains will materialise from every drama.
For the Springboks, it’s time for accomplishment to replace ambition, time to redeem for the failures of 2015. They are willing and well set.