From unrated no-hopers to world-beaters

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Dec 28, 2021, 02:30

The growth of the Springboks over the past four years can be measured by the number of players in the 2021 Team of the Year conversation, writes Jon Cardinelli.

The current group of Boks has won a World Cup, a Rugby Championship and a series against the British & Irish Lions. It wasn’t too long ago, however, when South African rugby was in a dark and seemingly hopeless place.

Over the course of two horrific seasons in 2016 and 2017, the Boks sustained an inaugural loss to Italy, an historic away defeat in Argentina as well as record beatings at the hands of the All Blacks, Wales and Ireland. By the time Rassie Erasmus replaced Allister Coetzee as head coach in early 2018, the Boks had slumped to seventh place in the World Rugby rankings.

Fall of a global superpower

Critics lamented the fall of a global superpower. Many questioned the local structures and the quality of the local players. Former Bok coach Nick Mallett stated that no-one in the South African team deserved to be in the World XV conversation.

It was an interesting time to tour with the Boks as a South African journalist. In various interviews, overseas coaches, players, journalists and fans made it clear that the Boks had lost their fearsome aura, and that the two-time world champions were in danger of becoming largely irrelevant.

I remember one particular incident that followed the team announcement press conference in Cardiff ahead of the final Test of the 2017 season. One British reporter pulled me aside, and then asked me to identify the individuals who had been selected to face Wales.

“Not exactly a team packed with names like Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield,” he said. “Who are these guys?”

That South Africa team went on to lose 24-22 to a depleted Wales side. Six of those 23 players have not played for the Boks since.

When Erasmus took over in 2018, he was adamant that the situation could be salvaged and that the Boks could win the World Cup.

When I got the chance to interview the new Bok coach, I asked whether he believed that South Africa had the players to turn things around in such a short space of time. He answered in the affirmative, before explaining that he would cast the net wide in the club game at home and abroad.

Fast forward to the present. The players who were unrated or unknown in 2017 are global superstars in 2021. Thanks to the revolution initiated by Erasmus, many of those same players have realised their true potential, while several more have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as the game’s elite.

Lukhanyo Am came off the bench in Cardiff four years ago to make his international debut. By the end of the 2021 season, Am had established himself as the standout number 13 in world rugby.

Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth – who served as vice-captain and captain respectively under Coetzee – have undergone a transformation while playing for Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber. As 2021 draws to a close, many have singled out Kolisi as the game’s standout openside flank and Etzebeth as the best number four lock following a series of influential performances across an important season for South Africa.

Others in the World XV conversation, or among the respective writers and publications’ top players, include Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Trevor Nyakane, Lood de Jager and Handré Pollard. All of these players featured in the Cardiff clanger four years ago. The rugby world certainly views them in a different light today.

It’s also worth mentioning that two of South Africa’s best players played very little Test rugby in 2021.

Dec 28, 2021, 08:32

All true, a pity some just can't bring themselves to admit it...although Eben and a few other players were standouts before Rassie....

Dec 28, 2021, 08:41

Sure they were standouts but they grew alongside of the team into a unit......a winning unit.

Dec 28, 2021, 08:50

Exactly, despite all adversities which include an incredibly corrupt and horribly unfair racist government with brainless restrictions and bureaucracy we stood tall and achieved almost a miracle.

The moaning and whining minnies should wake up and see this in the correct perpective and context.

Dec 28, 2021, 09:11

Sometimes we fail to appreciate the moment until it becomes a memory.

Dec 28, 2021, 13:55

At some stage I couldn't see South Africa cracking the top 3 again, never mind winning a RWC...

Dec 28, 2021, 16:33

Add the names of de Allende and Mapimpi who have featured in teams of the year

And to think we have been missing Malherbe, RG Snyman, Kolbe, PSDT and Faf who all could easily feature in a world side

The loss to Oz twice and the England game we dominated put a blight on what should have been a great year

But when your general is missing it’s hardly surprising we came a little unstuck a few times this year.

If Rassie had been physically present, we would not have lost those 3 test matches

Dec 28, 2021, 18:09

So Etzebeth was a nothing player until Harrassmiss came along. Beaten twice by the number 6 team in rugby, 8/5.

Dec 28, 2021, 20:02

Eben has had his best year under Rassie

Rassie present 1 loss

Rassie absent 4 losses

Case closed

Dec 28, 2021, 20:51

Only convincing win of the year against the ABs when Harrassmiss wasn’t there….case closed. 

Dec 28, 2021, 20:55

Crap nothing worse than a loss

4 losses tell the story not one victory

I’d much rather have seen us lose that NZ test and beat Oz twice and England as we should have

We would never have lost those tests had our man Rassie been present

Dec 28, 2021, 21:15

Cannot understand why some posters think : 1) Know more about coaching than the experienced coaches themselves especiallly from those who have reached the highest pinnacle of all 2} Try and down grade top players like our first centre and flanker. 3) Suggestions and recommendations are welcome, ie bring in certain variarations like Andre Esterhuizen for our outside centre but then why...because he is doing a good job, AO and Moz are quirky and restless. Hang on guys who the hell do you think you are ??? The little man complex that knows more than a first line player, educated and a coach. Is not this arrogance or fickle talk?

Dec 28, 2021, 21:52

We would never have beaten Oz twice….Kerevi was dominating the midfield, Hooper gave Oz an edge at the breakdown and Tupou negated our scrum.

8 and 5.

Dec 29, 2021, 00:44

If we don’t change things up, and use more of the ball that is given by our top pack dominance, we will stay 8 and 5 or maybe even worse. We need better precise backline training and I agree on that. DA is maybe not the best playmaker, but has got strength and with some different coaching, as seen by Munster, he can be a better rounded player.

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