Rugby

The Boks had reached a fork in the road.

Their world No. 1 ranking isn't up for grabs just yet, but their aura and reputation as the best team in the world, which they've had since winning the World Cup final in Yokohama on November 2, 2019, will be shattered if they lose a second straight game to an Australian team that finished so far behind the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup.

On the surface, they’ll be facing the Wallabies in another Castle Lager Rugby Championship match at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Saturday, but it could be one of the most crucial games this set of Springboks has ever played.

Their world No. 1 ranking isn’t up for grabs just yet, but their aura and reputation as the best team in the world, which they’ve had since winning the World Cup final in Yokohama on November 2, 2019, will be shattered if they lose a second straight game to an Australian team that finished so far behind the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup.

Their self-belief and mental toughness, which have been built up on a journey that has brought them from the bottom rung of rankings among top tier nations to the peak of the game since the Rassie Erasmus era began at the start of 2018, may also play a role.

One loss to the Wallabies, especially in the manner in which it occurred, can be viewed as an exception. But two in a row would raise serious doubts, potentially undermining the good work done earlier in the season with their significant, given the circumstances, victory over the British and Irish Lions.

EXPECTATIONS ARE RAISED

It’s not so much their ability that’s being questioned in this game as it is that intangible something that separates the champion teams from the rest. To be fair, this Springboks team has probably won more games like that than they have lost, meaning games that could have easily been lost and came down to the wire. Since the beginning of the year, to be sure.

The champions, on the other hand, win those types of games. It’s possible to lose one, but it’s less likely to lose two without the gloom merchants, who’ve been mainly dormant for the past three years, emerging from their hiding places and knocking on the door. It might not start with a crescendo of knocking, but it will eventually.

Defeat will also eliminate the Boks from the Championship race, which would not have been such a disaster in the past. However, there was not the same level of expectation in the past as there is now. South Africans were merely hoping their team will be competitive again four years ago, before Erasmus took over as coach before moving on to his post as director of rugby.

That is no longer the case. People, especially South Africans, don’t take long to get used to the feeling of their team being champions, and while not winning the Championship will be acceptable if they make a good effort, dropping out now is far too soon, and would be compared to Peter de Villiers’ 2008 train smash in the Tri-Nations in his first season as coach following the 2007 World Cup victory.

True, that side came back to beat the Lions a year later, proving that they controlled the globe by defeating the All Blacks 3-0 in the Tri-Nations the following season, and you wouldn’t bet against this one doing the same. It’s just that a second loss to the Wallabies would be damaging to the team’s morale. Not just the fans’ confidence, but possibly the players’ as well. That wouldn’t be helpful ahead of the crucial 100th test against the All Blacks next week.

WHY SHOULD SOUTH AFRICA BE EXPECTED TO WIN?

This is something that should never happen. Last week’s game was unusual in that, while the Boks lost and the result was an upset, it also underlined the world champions’ superiority over the Wallabies in many aspects. It’s difficult to envision the Boks being as bad defensively as they were on the Gold Coast in the first half – 13 missed tackles – and all the fuss around Handre Pollard’s place-kicking is unjustified when you consider his overall record.

While it would be good if the Boks could score tries other than through a driving maul, the reality remains that they scored three tries to one at the CBUS Stadium. That doesn’t happen very often, and a side usually loses when a try spread like that demonstrates one team’s supremacy over the other. Like a 3-1 victory in a round ball game.

Last week’s Bok issues were immediately detected and should be simple to resolve. For example, they were penalized four times for off-sides. They should also be more prepared for the clever Australian techniques, whether it’s creating havoc ahead of the ball with off-the-ball play, like they did a lot last week, or in the set scrums.

In a nutshell, the Boks need to be on point in Brisbane, something they weren’t on the Gold Coast, and strange as it may sound, Morne Steyn managed a hole in one on the golf course the other day, which is maybe the most encouraging thing for South African supporters.

What does this have to do with the price of eggs, exactly? Steyn isn’t even in the game? Well, it means the Boks are back to normal and have left the suffocating climate of their 14-day isolation with the Argentina Pumas behind. The Boks refused to make excuses, but it appeared to have a negative influence on both of the quarantined teams.

RUNNING AWAY FROM THEIR OWN DEMONS

There are numerous rugby reasons to believe the Boks should win this match, including what we observe on the field in terms of scrums, lineouts, kicks, tackles, and passes. What counts against them is the less obvious and measurable, i.e. whatever it is that has seen the Wallabies win by less than a score in every game they have played against the Boks on South African soil since 2013.

Yes, last week was not an outlier in that regard. They lost in the same way they always do in Australia. Which means my colleague Brenden Nel is correct when he says the biggest Bok opponent in this game is their own demons.

Suncorp is also a happy hunting ground for Australia, where they haven’t lost in eight matches dating back to 2016, and where the All Blacks also compete. Many believe that history is immaterial, yet the Wallaby’s good record in Brisbane must imply something, even if it’s impossible to pin down.

The 2013 Boks, on the other hand, ended a long drought with a thrashing and confidence-boosting victory at same location. That is what South Africans will be expecting on Saturday, and if it is delivered, the fact that it takes place in Brisbane will obliterate the awful memories of last Sunday’s events. Champion teams are known for their ability to bounce back. The Boks have done it before, and all they have to do now is do it again.

TEAMS

AUSTRALIA: Tom Banks, Andrew Kellaway, Len Ikitau, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Quade Cooper, Nic White, Rob Valetini, Michael Hooper (c), Lachlan Swinton, Matt Philip, Izack Rodda, Taniela Tupou, Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper, Tom Banks, Andrew Kellaway, Len Ikitau, Samu Kerevi Feleti Kaitu’u, Angus Bell, Tom Robertson, Darcy Swain, Pete Samu, Tate McDermott, Reece Hodge, and Jordan Petaia are among the replacements.

Willie le Roux; S’bu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen, Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi (captain), Marvin Orie, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Trevor Nyakane; Handre Pollard, Faf de K Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith, Jasper Wiese, Herschel Jantjies, and Damian Willemse have been named as replacements.

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