Ready for redemption

Ready for redemption

The Springboks should be aiming for at least three wins on their four-Test tour of Europe later this year. By Jon Cardinelli

Last season, the Springboks sustained inaugural losses to Ireland at home and Argentina away, as well as a first-ever defeat to Italy. They copped record hidings at the hands of the All Blacks and Wales.

In the wake of the latter game, former England hooker Brian Moore said that he’d never seen a worse South African side. Many others lamented the fact that the Boks’ traditional physical approach was no longer evident, and that South African rugby had indeed hit rock bottom.

Changes were needed ahead of the 2017 season. While most of the South African teams continued to struggle against their New Zealand counterparts in the Super Rugby tournament – the Kiwis won 13 of the 15 conference-stage match-ups – the Lions played an exciting and pragmatic brand of rugby, and went on to host a grand final for the first time in the franchise’s history.

Bok coach Allister Coetzee looked to harness that energy and confidence by stacking his team with Lions players. The recruitment of Brendan Venter, a former Bok centre and a decorated coach, served to boost the team’s defence and strengthen the overall game plan. The Boks built a new culture in 2017. The side played with passion as well as precision. By late August, they had claimed five Test wins and thus surpassed the class of 2016, who only won four.

The Boks will have a point to prove when they journey to Europe at the end of the year for a four-Test tour. Their last sojourn to the north, of course, will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Coetzee admitted that the 31–31 draw with the Barbarians in the first tour fixture ‘felt like a loss’. The Boks went on to lose 37–21 to England, 20–18 to Italy, and 27–13 to Wales. The defeat at Twickenham marked the Boks’ first loss to England in 10 years; the defeat in Florence marked their first-ever loss to Italy; and the defeat in Cardiff marked South Africa’s heaviest-ever loss to Wales.

It isn’t surprising to hear that many are touting the next visit to the northern hemisphere as the ‘Redemption Tour’. After facing Ireland in Dublin and then France in Paris, the Boks will have the chance to set the record straight against Italy in Padua, and against Wales in Cardiff.

After making significant improvements with regards to their fitness and defence, and after claiming some important wins at the start of the Test season, Coetzee’s charges should be favourites to win at least three of the four matches on the tour to Europe.

The opposition will have the advantage of playing at home. The players from Ireland, France, Italy, and Wales should be relatively fresh considering the European club competitions commenced in late August and early September.

The Boks will need to adapt to the wet and heavy underfoot conditions of the northern hemisphere. Coetzee and his coaches will face a further challenge in managing a tiring group of players at the end of a southern hemisphere season that began in February.

Perhaps this is why so few South African sides have managed a clean sweep of wins on an end-of-year tour. Four-game sojourns to Europe have proved even trickier in recent times. After beating the All Blacks in the final clash of the 2014 Rugby Championship, the Boks won two and lost two on the subsequent tour to the northern hemisphere.

The Boks beat Ireland 2–1 in the series played in South Africa last year. Their recent record in Ireland, however, doesn’t make for encouraging reading. The Boks have lost four of their last six Tests in Dublin, including the most recent fixture in 2014.

Ireland won’t be short on confidence after beating the All Blacks in late 2016 and then England in the 2017 Six Nations. Indeed, many of their players may still be buzzing after contributing to the British and Irish Lions’ series draw with the All Blacks in New Zealand this past July. The game against Ireland in November promises to be the Boks’ toughest of the tour.

The Boks thrashed France 3–0 in the series played in South Africa in June. Coetzee’s charges should know that the French are a more dangerous side on their own turf, though. The Boks have lost four of their last five Tests in France. That said, they may take heart from the most recent result at the Stade de France: a 19–10 victory in 2013. The Boks should have the muscle to deal with France’s forwards.

Italy dominated the Boks up front in the clash played in Florence last year. This year, however, the Boks should have the means to negotiate the set-piece and breakdown challenges. They should not want for motivation. The match in Padua will provide them with an opportunity to redeem themselves for the 2016 defeat, and to land a psychological blow before the 2019 World Cup. The Boks are set to face Italy during the pool phase of the global tournament.

South Africa boast a great overall record against Wales, having won 28 of the 32 Tests played since 1906. They’ve lost their last two Tests at the Millennium Stadium, though.

Wales should pose an even greater threat at the end of this season given that many of their players starred for the Lions in that series against the All Blacks in New Zealand. It’s in this match – which will be played on 2 December, nearly 10 months after the start of the South African season – where the Bok players’ fitness as well as Coetzee’s management of the group will be under scrutiny.

There’s good reason to expect an improved performance by the Boks in Europe later this year. A win in Dublin could set South Africa up for four straight wins. A loss to Ireland, however, would not spell disaster. Three hard-earned victories in the northern hemisphere would signify progress and serve as further evidence that South African rugby is on the rise.

Photography: gallo/gettyimages

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