Sat, 19 Oct 2019

The Test season is upon us, with the Springboks set to open their Rugby Championship campaign against the Wallabies at Ellis Park on Saturday.

As has become customary in a Rugby World Cup year, it will be a shortened Rugby Championship, with teams only facing each other over a single round of matches.

Of course, the real focus is on the showpiece event in Japan later this year.

After the horrors of 2016 and 2017, the Boks were vastly-improved under Rassie Erasmus' guidance in 2018 and there are reasons to believe that 2019 may just be their year.

There are, however, a few concerns that could hamper the team's cause.

As such, I've highlighted 10 points to ponder as the Springboks embark on their quest to win a third Rugby World Cup:

POSITIVES

1. No one cares who wins the Rugby Championship... and Rassie knows this

History has shown that the Rugby Championship doesn't really matter in a World Cup year.

Since 1999, the winner of the Rugby Championship has never gone on to win the World Cup in the same year.

In 1999, New Zealand won the-then Tri-Nations but Australia won the World Cup, while in 2003 the All Blacks against won the Tri-Nations with England going on to win the World Cup.

In 2007, the All Blacks were again victorious in the Tri-Nations while the Springboks claimed World Cup glory.

In 2011 and 2015, it was Australia's turn to win the Rugby Championship, while New Zealand won the World Cup on both occasions.

In a World Cup year, the Rugby Championship is there to experiment and Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus knows this.

It therefore came as no surprise that he selected an experimental line-up for Saturday's opener against the Wallabies...

2. No mental block against All Blacks

Last year's upset over the All Blacks in Wellington broke the mental block that the Springboks had developed against their old rivals in recent years.

The Boks should have won the return Test in Pretoria as well, before some questionable substitutions saw them throw away a 30-13 lead heading into the final quarter.

Nevertheless, they know they can beat the All Blacks and this will prove vital heading into the World Cup where the teams are paired in the same pool.

3. World-class campaigners in key positions

The Springboks boast some world-class players in key positions that will strike fear into their opponents.

Malcolm Marx is considered by many as the best hooker in world rugby.

The Boks have top-level locks in Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman.

Pieter-Steph du Toit's versatility would see him walk into any Test team, while Duane Vermeulen's presence at No 8 will prove invaluable.

Flyhalf Handre Pollard's form in Super Rugby was sublime and history has shown that you can't win a World Cup without a top-level flyhalf.

4. Overseas stars to boost Bok cause

Erasmus made the right call by changing the regulation which limited the participation of overseas players in the Springbok team.

The fact that Erasmus can call on the likes of Marcell Coetzee, Rynhardt Elstadt, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert, Willie le Roux, Cobus Reinach, Cheslin Kolbe, Frans Steyn, Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach no doubt makes the team stronger.

5. Fifth-ranked Boks will fly under the radar

The Boks are currently ranked fifth in the official World Rugby rankings and they will enter the World Cup slightly under the radar.

All the talk in the northern hemisphere has been about Ireland challenging the All Blacks, England's prowess under Eddie Jones and Wales' 14-match unbeaten run.

Not many pundits are giving the Boks much of a chance and I reckon that's something Erasmus will like.

CONCERNS

6. Inconsistency

Yes, it was clear that the Springboks were vastly improved under Erasmus' guidance last year, but inconsistency still plagued their season.

The Boks only had a 50% win record (7 out of 14) and a repeat of that will not bring World Cup glory.

They won't have much time before the World Cup to improve their consistency and will likely enter the tournament with that monkey on their backs.

7. SA's poor Super Rugby showing

When the Springboks last won the World Cup in 2007, the country had two teams (Sharks and Bulls) contesting the Super Rugby final.

This year, there were sub-par efforts from most local teams.

It should be a worry that the Jaguares finished 10 points clear of the Bulls in the SA Conference.

Yes, the Bulls and Sharks made the quarter-finals, but it came as no surprise when they lost those matches abroad.

The Bulls were vastly improved from 2018, but heavy home losses to the Chiefs (56-20) and Crusaders (45-13) suggest they were not the real deal just yet.

The Sharks lost five times at home and were way too inconsistent to even be considered contenders, while there was not much to write home about for the Lions and Stormers.

8. A potential banana skin in the World Cup quarter-finals

The Springboks and All Blacks will square off in the group stages at the World Cup in Japan, with the loser of that clash likely to finish second in Pool B.

That would mean a potential quarter-final against high-flying Ireland, a team the Boks lost to by a 38-3 scoreline in their most recent encounter in Dublin in 2017.

It's a quarter-final both South Africa and New Zealand want to avoid at all costs.

9. Captaincy conundrum

There is concern over the fitness of Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, who is struggling with a serious knee injury. The last thing a team wants is for its leader to be injured in the build-up to the World Cup.

The Boks do have capable successors like Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard and Warren Whiteley, but the squad needs the stability of knowing who their leader will be at the showpiece event in Japan.

Whiteley is also currently injured, while Etzebeth has been sidelined for large periods in 2019.

10. Regain fear factor in time?

The Springboks used to instil fear into opponents. There was often talk of the "aura" that the team carried but that aura was sadly lost in recent seasons after some dreadful losses to average teams.

Teams like Italy and Wales won't fear the Boks and that could prove troublesome at the World Cup.

Disclaimer:

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