As South Africa prepared to take on Italy in their autumn international at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence on November 19, the Springboks (as the South African national rugby team are called) held the proud record of having never lost to the Italians in the 12 matches the two sides had played. Eighty minutes later, the final score read 20-18 in favour of the hosts and the Springboks could no longer claim an unblemished record against the Italians.
It was a historic loss for the Springboks and yet another low for a proud rugby nation that has been at the crossroads for quite some time, having stumbled upon one record-breaking loss after another for the past year or so.
At the World Cup last year, the Springboks faced Japan in Brighton with the expectation that the rugby giants would swat the Tier 2 nation aside but the scoreline at the end of the game read 34-32 in favour of the Asians.
It was an astonishing defeat for the Springboks against a side that had not won a World Cup game since 1991. South Africa, nevertheless, recovered from the crushing defeat and reached the semi-final before narrowly losing to the eventual champions, New Zealand.
The World Cup side was built around senior players, some of whom had been called out of retirement specifically to secure the Webb Ellis Cup. As expected, they bid adieu to international rugby at the end of the tournament. And once they left the South Africans have struggled like they did against Japan in that fateful encounter.
In the 2016 Rugby Championship, the Springboks lost for the first time to Argentina away; and were absolutely decimated by the All Blacks at home, with the visitors inflicting a nine-try 57-12 demolition to hand the Springboks their heaviest defeat at home. If Beauden Barrett had his kicking game on, the score would have been even more embarrassing.
The historic lows have just kept on coming with Allister Coetzee’s men losing to Ireland for the first time at home followed by a 37-21 loss defeat at the hands of England at Twickenham. The defeat to Eddie Jones’ side is the first time the Springboks have lost to England in a decade. Despite the crushing defeats leading to the match in Italy, no one would have foreseen the capitulation at the hands of the Italians.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine that when the Springboks became the world champions for the first time in 1995, they were ahead of New Zealand in head-to-head wins. The record has since been overturned and as the All Blacks have elevated rugby to a whole new level – notching an unprecedented 18 successive Test wins in the process – the Springboks are undergoing a massive crisis.
So what’s ailing the Springboks?
There are an estimated 300 South African players plying their trades in wealthier domestic leagues across Europe and Japan and a further 50 are slated to leave the country to join their countrymen on the foreign lands.
The falling rand has not helped the mass exodus as the players leave home in search of better contracts at wealthier clubs abroad. The kinds of contracts that are on offer from northern hemisphere franchises are well beyond the scope of their southern hemisphere counterparts. And as such, the South African set up is marred by a problem that they cannot do much to stem.
New Zealand Rugby Union has, to some degree, addressed the problem of exodus by barring players not playing in the home franchises from selection in the national team. The NZRU gives central contracts to about 150 players and thereby maintain a strong pool of home-based players to choose from.
The home franchises work in tandem with the national set up to ensure the payers at all levels follow a certain system which makes the transition to the first team much easier.
The trickle down of nous and invaluable experience from the stalwarts of the game to their younger club teammates is essential for national team to maintain their identity. And New Zealand rugby has gained immensely from having such a robust plan in place.
South Africa has no such system and no restriction on personnel who choose to play out of the country. Many pundits have lamented the lack of collaboration between the South African Super Rugby teams and the national set up as a major problem for the Springboks’ ongoing struggles.
To compound the problems, those leaving are now doing so at an ever early age, thereby foregoing the chance of learning the rudiments of the Springboks’ playing style and, as a consequence, face problems when they eventually make it to the national team.
Problems of integration
South Africa also has a unique problem of integrating black players into the national team in an effort to address the injustices of apartheid era. The South African government has mandated that by 2019 half of the Springboks team should comprise of non-white players.
In fact, the lack of transformation of non-white players in the cricket, rugby and netball national teams has led to the South African governing bodies of the three sports being suspended from bidding for international tournaments. The decision will be reviewed based upon the progress in the transformation targets in the 2016/17 season.
The move has the right intent but its strict implementation is unlikely to help the South African rugby overcome its current gloom. The fact remains that rugby in South Africa – a country where more than 90 per cent of the population is non-white – is still very much a white man’s sport. The majority of the black population find their leisure in football – Matthew Booth was the only white player in the South African squad for the 2010 World Cup.
Proper resources, ranging from appropriate playing surfaces to top level coaching, are still not available to a wider population. It is a consequence of larger failings from the governing bodies that rugby has not been taken up by the lesser privileged masses. It is much easier for them to pick up a football and have a kickabout than to take up rugby.
And these bigger issues will not be addressed by imposing quota in the senior national team. If anything, it will only serve to break the confidence of the talented black players if they are thrown in at the deep end, having bypassed the necessary stages of slow integration to the Test team by being mentored by the senior players – a vital step which has been key to the All Blacks’ seemingly unending supply of top-class talent.
The fact remains that imposing a quota system means that all the players in the squad will not be there on merit. And that is a cause of concern.
Apart from the lucrative contracts on offer from European and Japanese outfits, the uncertainty of earning a Springbok cap due to the quota system would also be playing heavily on the minds of young aspirants.
The Springboks have certainly been weakened by players opting for other national teams. CJ Stander, the Ireland back row, was born in South Africa and has played in the country’s youth set up before he answered the Irish’s call. Stander’s international teammate Richardt Strauss was born in Pretoria. England international Brad Barritt was born in Durban but has gone on to earn 26 caps for Eddie Jones’ team. Dries van Schalkwyk, the scorer of the opening Italy try in their defeat of the Springboks, was born in Bloemfontein.
Not that all of them would have made the Springbok starting XV, but the talent drain is a major cause of concern for South Africa. It is an issue that has also marred their cricket team with players like Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen opting to play for England while they were eligible to represent their country of birth.
A question of style
The physical game, bone-shaking challenges, forcing the opposition into conceding penalties and winning the scrum with a massive forward pack, and kicking the ball, have traditionally been the strengths of South African rugby.
However, the game has changed considerably over the past few years with the emphasis a lot more on being proactive rather than reactive; on skills rather than athleticism. Teams that move the ball well and focus on scoring tries are being successful.
The Springboks, on the other hand, are still relying on their traditional strengths. The tactics of Heyneke Meyer were especially questionable as he has recalled older players and played the usual South African style instead of blooding the team with youngsters and adapting the side to play the modern game.
South African rugby appears to be caught in a stasis, in an urgent need for it to adapt to the modern demands of the game. It’s not that there is only one way of playing rugby to which all the teams must adapt or perish. The South Africans shouldn’t forego their traditional identity but definitely look towards playing a more rounded game. If they are to challenge the All Blacks – the team the Springboks benchmark themselves against, then a mere physical game is unlikely to get them there.
What lies ahead?
Probably some more pain before the ongoing agony is stopped.
South Africa has seen lows before, with the two-season reign of Rudolf Straeuli during 2002-03 being a particularly depressing period. The team reached an abysmal low in their 50-point loss to England in the Twickenham Test in November 2003; and it was emblematic of the deep malaise within the Springbok ranks that when their skipper Corne Krige threw a wild punch in a ruck and it caught his teammate Andre Pretorius flush in the face. Krige’s side lost the game 53-3.
South Africa recovered from the torrid period and were world champions five years later and had the best team in the world at the time.
Not all is lost but South African rugby needs some decisive steps to be taken.
Coetzee has made seven changes from the team that lost to Italy, and is set to give Test debuts to three players when the Springboks take on Wales in their last match of the year on Saturday. The changes rung by the coach perhaps show that infusing fresh blood is the way forward but it remains to be seen how the new-look team respond to the challenge. There may be more misery in store for the Springboks faithful before 2016 bids adieu.
Nevertheless, the South African Rugby Union need to get their act together for a strong Springbok side is instrumental for the rude health of international rugby.