A New Beginning
The Rugby Championship that kicks off on Saturday signals a fresh start in more ways than one.
With the addition of Argentina comes the opportunity for Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to banish the Boks’ underwhelming Tri-Nations record and build a new legacy, one that begins with the men in green and gold as inaugural winners of the four-nation tournament.
The Boks have the unenviable reputation as the worst performers in the disbanded Tri-Nations, having captured the silverware on just three occasions - in 1998, 2004 and 2009 - and winning just 28 of their 72 Tests in the 16-year history of the competition.
The Rugby Championship thus provides the Boks with a clean slate, a second chance to make a first impression against old rivals New Zealand and Australia and newcomers Argentina.
Meyer’s brief honeymoon as Bok coach is over. Winning the home series against England saw Meyer’s new-look Boks clear the first hurdle, but the dire 14-all draw in the third and final Test robbed them of precious momentum, impetus enjoyed by both the All Blacks and the Wallabies due to their series clean sweeps over Ireland and Six Nations champions Wales respectively.
Their conservative game plan was uninspiring yet effective against England, but it remains to be seen whether it will hold up against the All Blacks and the Wallabies, who in captains Richie McCaw and David Pocock, possess the two leading breakdown specialists in world rugby.
Morne Steyn and Francois Hougaard’s indifferent performances against England and the lack of a plan B highlighted the Boks’ vulnerability when not allowed to dominate up front and cross the gainline through big ball carriers like Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis and Marcell Coetzee.
The All Blacks looked spectacular but the Irish showed in their near upset in between drubbings that the new world champions aren’t invincible. The Wallabies showed their character and composure in winning three close contests that could easily have been lost by lesser sides, while the Pumas suggested they won’t merely be also-rans with victories over Italy and World Cup finalists France heading into the Rugby Championship.
Their inclusion in the expanded Southern Hemisphere showpiece is long overdo and could subsequently lead to an unjust assessment of the quality of Argentine rugby as the Pumas will be without such legends as Agustin Pichot, Felipe Contepomi and Mario Ledesma who formed the nucleus of the side that finished third in the 2007 World Cup.
The Pumas, like the Boks, are in a rebuilding year but lack the desirable depth of the two-time world champions. They’re in for a real baptism of fire and could struggle to remain competitive in the latter stages of the tournament.
At first glance, Springbok supporters will consider the draw to be a favourable one with back-to-back encounters with the Pumas kicking off their team’s campaign.
They’ll, however, face the grunt of the Pumas’ charge, especially in the second Test in Mendoza, and will indirectly contribute to their arch-rivals’ cause by softening up the newcomers and leaving them depleted and susceptible to heavy defeats.
The key clash, and the one the Boks will be targeting, is the one against the Wallabies in Perth. With the All Blacks notoriously difficult to trump on New Zealand soil, the Boks will feel that wins in Perth and Mendoza coupled with an unbeaten record at home could see them pip the All Blacks to the post.