As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams, as well as Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”.We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2018. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2017 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 5 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how South Africa fared.
South Africa – 4/10
While it may not have been quite as bad as 2016, it wasn’t really much of a year to get excited about for Springbok supporters as once again it highlighted that this is a team with more questions than answers. Inconsistent and at times completely bereft of any sort of game plan, were the two overriding impressions of South African rugby in 2017. While the players must also take some responsibility for this, once more the finger of accusation points at the coaching setup and its inherent weaknesses, coupled to a glaring lack of cohesion and synergy between Coaches and players. There were some high points this year that gave us a tantalizing glimpse of what this team could be, but they were simply too few and far between to leave anyone with much confidence in the Springboks being able to pose a serious threat in a World Cup a mere eighteen months away. Much needs to change and there is alarmingly little time left on the clock in which to do it.
On paper it doesn’t look that bad, 6 wins out of 13 matches, including two draws and five losses. So why the doom and gloom you ask? It’s the nature of those losses that really got alarm bells ringing, especially the record losses to New Zealand and Ireland. Furthermore in both of the draws against Australia during the Rugby Championship, South Africa could and should have won as well as the truly epic second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town.
South Africa started their 2017 campaign well, in a three Test series against a visiting French team. The euphoria that surrounded their clean sweep of the series against France, has to be tempered by the fact that French touring sides of the last six years or more have always been of notoriously poor quality. Nevertheless, for the first time since the last World Cup the Springboks played with intent and purpose and genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. Several players really stood out and despite the deficiencies of a weak and clearly dispirited French side, the Springboks looked like a team reborn, leaving their supporters with a new-found sense of optimism. There was plenty of pride and passion in the jersey and unlike 2016 it was a team that looked like it had finally figured out what kind of rugby it wanted to play.
Next up it was the Rugby Championship and even though the Springboks then followed their success against France with a further two wins against Argentina in the opening two rounds, the Pumas themselves were also rarely gracing the front pages this year. Once more the Springboks new-found heroics had to be taken against the caliber of their opposition. This was made painfully obvious as South Africa headed out on the road to play New Zealand and Australia. South Africa have struggled on the road in recent years and this year has sadly proved no exception to the rule. Their opening away game against New Zealand was one of the worst Springbok performances many of us have had the misfortune of watching in the last 30 years. In an inept performance, in which to say that the Springboks looked clueless would be putting it politely, New Zealand subjected South Africa to their worst defeat in history as they were blanked 57-0. South Africa then recovered themselves against Australia drawing with the Wallabies 23-23. However, lapses in concentration and discipline coupled to some poor execution and an aimless kicking game which seemed to focus on kicking away valuable possession for no visible gain at key moments, saw the Springboks lose a game they should have won.
On their return to South Africa for their final two home games of the Rugby Championship, South Africa found some redemption in the match against New Zealand. However, the opening fixture against Australia in Bloemfontein showed no improvement in the key areas which tripped them up in the first Test against the Wallabies two weeks previously, and once more a highly unsatisfying draw at 27-27 was the inconclusive result. It was the final match against New Zealand in Cape Town where the Springboks produced their best performance of the year, and Hooker Malcolm Marx in particular who singlehandedly personified the passion and legacy of the Springbok jersey in a superhuman effort. Given that the Springboks had essentially been written off prior to the match, it was a heroic effort from a team that seemed determined to turn things around and restore some much-needed pride to the Springbok name. South Africa may have lost by one point, but they had the All Blacks on the ropes for the full eighty minutes in what was for us one of the most epic Test matches of 2017.
South Africa then headed to Europe for their end of year tour in November. Buoyed by the performance against New Zealand in the final game of the Rugby Championship, their opening fixture against Ireland was one which many anticipated eagerly. Sadly though it wasn’t to be. Once more the Springboks took ten steps backwards and produced yet another inept and chaotic display of rugby which made them look clueless and sadly lacking in the basic skills needed at Test level. Ireland dominated the match from start to finish in a clinical display that saw South Africa suffer their worst ever defeat to the Men in Green by 38-3. Much like the 57-0 drubbing they received at the hands of the All Blacks a few months earlier, it was painful and embarrassing to watch if you were a Springbok supporter. They once more found some redemption in their match against France a week later, but it was a less than convincing display which in all honesty they were lucky to win by a mere one point at 18-17. Next up they took on a shambolic Italy in exceptionally poor conditions, and the scoreline of 35-6 in favor of the Springboks didn’t really tell us much about whether or not much improvement had really been made by South Africa. Both the French and Italian games were torrid spectacles in which South Africa simply battered both teams into submission physically. Neither match showed much inventiveness from South Africa in attack, in stark contrast to the French who seemed to have plenty, and the glaring deficiencies of South Africa’s current crop of backs were there for all to see. If it hadn’t been for South Africa’s exceptional physical presence in the forwards there would have been little to write about. In their final match against a weakened Welsh side, South Africa laboured through to ultimately lose yet another game they could and should have won. In short Wales were poor but South Africa were worse. Most of the team looked as though they were simply fulfilling a contractual obligation and just wanted yet another humiliating season to end, so they could all get on the plane and go home and try to regroup for next year.
So the renaissance that was the French series at the beginning of the season, and which left so many of us hoping that South Africa were finally back with a vengeance has sadly ended up being yet another false dawn. South Africa did produce one truly epic Test match against the All Blacks in Cape Town but to be honest that is the only time we really felt that this was a team that had really turned a corner. However, a month later in Dublin we were once more were left speechless as South Africa put in a performance that was so far removed from the Cape Town spectacle that it was hard to believe that the same players had produced such heroics. South Africa really does have some truly world-class players from 1-8 but sadly that is where it stops. Names like Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi will continue to impress for South Africa and keep us glued to our TV screens, but their backs are beyond average and while their half back combinations may shine in Super Rugby they simply can’t seem to reproduce that success at Test level. The ongoing issues around Coaching seem no further ahead to the point that there seems such a blatantly obvious discord between players and coaches it is hard to see how any training or planning can actually take place. As a result the Springboks continue to appear confused as to their identity in terms of game plan and the type of rugby they want to play. Lastly, a poor track record away from home continues to haunt them allied to a desperate and aimless kicking game when their backs are against the wall. This only serves to put them under even greater pressure which causes the team dynamic to fall apart even more, and with it their discipline.
While 2017 may once more have painted a rather depressing picture of where this once proud rugby nation is at, we still prefer to remain optimistic. Hopefully there will be some much-needed change in 2018 at the Coaching level which will do much to fix many of the issues plaguing South African rugby at the moment. World Rugby without a strong Springbok side is a poorer playing field and we really hope that the glimpses we saw of this once fiercely competitive side in the second Test against the All Blacks this year will become the norm again for 2018. We accept that South Africa is perhaps cursed with a highly complex layer of politics overriding the natural development of the game and the national side, but there is still no denying that South Africa is still a global powerhouse of rugby talent and as such it is only a matter of time before it once more takes its rightful place at the highest level of International Test Rugby.
Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – October 7th – Cape Town – South Africa 24/New Zealand 25. As mentioned above this was South Africa’s best performance of the year by a country mile, and for us one of the top three Tests of 2017. It was a powerful and thrilling contest that had us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes. South Africa were simply superb and Hooker Malcolm Marx personified the legend of the Springbok jersey in a performance that was superhuman in nature. Simply outstanding and a match that has been kept for posterity on our PVRs. If South Africa could play like that every time they take to the field then we would be having a VERY different discussion about their chances come the World Cup in Japan in eighteen months time.
Player of the year – Malcolm Marx. While he may have had problems with consistency this year, when he did bring his A game, the Springbok hooker was probably the best number 2 on the planet in 2017. A ferocious competitor who proved exceptionally difficult to contain or bring down in any kind of space, while at the same time producing some of the most spectacular turnovers of 2018 for his team, Marx personified everything that South African rugby needed in terms of a renaissance. If coached properly we expect the Hooker to rapidly rise to the very top echelons of his trade in 2018. Marx is a truly exceptional player and expect him to once more be one of the key talking points in South African rugby in 2018.
Player to watch in 2018 – Daniel du Preez. The versatile back rower impressed throughout 2017 every time he took to the field, much in the same way as did his older brother Jean-Luc. However, for us Daniel du Preez typifies the new look versatile and dynamic South African loose forward. Elusive, hard to bring down and possessing a phenomenal work rate, players like du Preez and Siya Kolisi are bringing so much imagination to the traditional smash and bash role of South African forwards. Expect to see du Preez get more spots in the starting XV in 2018 than as an impact player off the bench, a role he performed so admirably in 2017.
We end this report card on a positive note for South Africa with highlights from their best game of the year – the second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town. It was an epic performance and as we have said repeatedly throughout this piece one of the best Tests of the year. It had everything a great Test match should have, and considering that the Springboks played such a huge part in making it the spectacle it was, there is plenty of life left in the Springbok jersey yet. Down but definitely not out is our overall verdict on the Springboks for 2017 based on this performance. Here’s hoping for plenty more in 2018!
To be continued – up next Australia!