New beginning South Africa’s elite players have plenty to prove in the lead-up to the Test series against England and ultimately the 2019 Rugby World Cup. By Jon Cardinelli South Africa’s top rugby teams head into the 2018 season with some hope of a turnaround. The appointment of Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby has already led to changes that could make a difference to the performances of the local Super Rugby sides and ultimately the Springboks. South African rugby fans could certainly use a good news story. Last year, the Blitzbokke won the World Rugby Sevens Series title for the first time since 2009. Meanwhile, the Super Rugby teams and the Boks failed to make sufficient progress and ended 2017 without a trophy of consequence. The Lions were the only team to fly the South African flag in the latter stages of the Super Rugby tournament. After dominating the conference stage of the competition and earning the right to host the final, the Lions were outplayed by a sharper and more physical Crusaders team. The Boks showed signs of progress in the three-Test series against France and in the subsequent two games against Argentina. Things took a turn for the worse in the latter stages of the Rugby Championship, though. Allister Coetzee’s side copped a 57-0 beating at the hands of the All Blacks in Albany; the heaviest defeat in Bok history. The tour to Europe began in the worst possible fashion. The Boks suffered a record 38-3 loss to Ireland in Dublin. They bounced back to beat France in Paris and then Italy in Padua. The final game of the tour against Wales in Cardiff , however, proved a challenge too far. Ultimately, the Boks finished the season with a win-record of seven from 13. It won’t get any easier for the Boks when they host England in a three-Test series this June. England have won 22 of their 23 Tests under head coach Eddie Jones, a run that includes two Six Nations titles. They have rediscovered their physical edge over the past two seasons and will head to South Africa later this year believing that a rare series victory is there for the taking. It’s been a long time since a team from the northern hemisphere beat the Boks in a series staged in South Africa. The British & Irish Lions prevailed 2-1 in the series played in 1997. Since then, the Boks have prevented any further losses. It promises to be a fascinating series. Jones served as a technical advisor to the Boks when they won the World Cup in 2007, and has a good idea about what makes South African rugby players tick. Indeed, Jones’s England got the better of the Boks in the trenches and on the scoreboard the last time the sides met in November 2016. That result brought an end to England’s 10-year winless streak against South Africa. A win for the Boks in the coming series, however, would give fans and stakeholders a reason to believe that the national side is on the right track. Victory against the world’s No 2-ranked side a year out from the 2019 World Cup would also serve as a powerful statement. South African rugby has to get things right in the lead-up to that series, though. The local sides need to show an improvement in the Super Rugby tournament. The elite players have to build up some form and confidence ahead of the more challenging games against England. The Super Rugby tournament has undergone significant changes. Three teams were axed in the wake of the 2017 competition – namely the Cheetahs, Force, and Southern Kings – and this has led to a new conference format being implemented in 2018. The Bulls, Lions, Sharks, and Stormers, along with the Jaguares from Argentina, will feature in the South African conference. The Japan-based Sunwolves have moved across to the Australian conference. The New Zealand conference is unchanged. The Lions should be looking to go one better in 2018 after finishing as the runner-up in 2016 and 2017. They will go into this campaign with a new head coach in Swys de Bruin, though, as long-time mentor Johan Ackermann is now with Gloucester in England. The ambitions of the Bulls, Sharks, and Stormers will be more modest. The Sharks and Stormers have made up the numbers in the knockout phase over the past few years. The Stormers should be looking to clear that mental hurdle in 2018. The Cape franchise hasn’t won a playoff match since 2010. The Bulls sustained inaugural losses to the Stormers and Kings in 2017, and finished seventh (out of eight teams) in the South African group. They have since acquired the services of former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, and it’s hoped that a change in playing style will lead to more positive results. Erasmus would do well to keep an eye on the club competitions taking place in the northern hemisphere. Since exiting the Super Rugby tournament in 2017, the Cheetahs and Kings have been competing in a revamped Pro14 tournament. There are also some 300 South Africans plying their trade at various teams scattered across Europe and the United Kingdom. Test veterans such as Francois Louw (Bath) and Duane Vermeulen (Toulon) made a big impact for the Boks on the 2017 tour to the northern hemisphere, and should resume their leadership roles in the coming series against England. There’s plenty to prove in the lead-up to that series against England and with a view to the 2019 World Cup. Strong performances by local teams in the Super Rugby tournament will give South African fans reasons to believe that victory in that series is likely. Furthermore, victory in that series against England will show that the Boks are making progress and that they may yet be a force at the global tournament in Japan next year.