Rugby World Cup Profile: South Africa

Date published: September 1 2015

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With the 2015 Rugby World Cup now just days away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. Next up…

SOUTH AFRICA

Nickname: The Springboks

World Cup track record: After missing the first two World Cups during their Apartheid-era isolation, South Africa won on home soil in 1995 for arguably the most famous World Cup win of all, with Nelson Mandela on hand to present the trophy. Four years later, they reached the semi-finals before losing to a Tim Horan-inspired Australia, before quarter-final defeats either side of their second title, in 2007 when they beat England in the final in Paris.

1987: Not invited
1991: Not invited
1995: Winners
1999: Third place
2003: Quarter-finals
2007: Winners
2011: Quarter-finals

2011 World Cup: It was a disappointing campaign four years ago for the Springboks, who were pushed very hard in their group by Wales and Samoa, before setting up a quarter-final against Australia. They dominated much of the game, but were outplayed at the breakdown by David Pocock, eventually going down 11-9. The result did not go down well back home, with referee Bryce Lawrence coming in for a great deal of criticism for his role in the loss.

World Cup Stats: P29, W25, D0, L4

– Most RWC appearances: John Smit (17)
– Most appearances: Victor Matfield (122)
– Top RWC points scorer: Percy Montgomery (110)
– Top points scorer: Percy Montgomery (893)
– Top RWC try scorers: Bryan Habana (10)
– Top try scorer: Bryan Habana (57)

Form: 2015 has been nothing short of disastrous for the Springboks, who finished last in the Rugby Championship for the first time after failing to pick up a single win. After falling short in close game against both the All Blacks and Wallabies, defeat to Argentina on home soil was the low point. A much-improved performance a week late in Buenos Aires in a RWC warm-up game offered some hope that they will have the firepower to contend for the world title although fitness doubts over a handful of key players linger.

Coach: Former Bulls and Leicester coach Heyneke Meyer has been in charge since 2012, following a similar philosophy to the one that saw him lead the Bulls to a Super Rugby title in 2007. Like many South African coaches, he enjoys playing the percentages, with a strong territorial kicking game and powerful pack. He also spent a season in England coaching Leicester, but left after just five months for personal reasons. A sports psychology graduate, Meyer came up through the coaching ranks in Pretoria having never played top level rugby.
 
Captain: Springbok skipper Jean de Villiers has had to work harder than most to make the tournament, after recovering from a horrific knee injury suffered last November. De Villiers was stretchered off during South Africa's loss to Wales and required a total knee reconstruction, making his playing comeback against a World XV in July. De Villiers has had his fair share of bad luck when it comes to World Cups, having played less than a game in 2007 before tearing his bicep and having to watch the rest of the tournament from the sidelines.

Part of one of South Africa's most successful centre partnerships, with Jaque Fourie, De Villiers has spent almost his entire career in Cape Town with the Stormers. He had one season away at Munster in 2009, while he won his 100th Test cap against New Zealand in 2014. He was also part of the Springbok team that beat the Lions in 2009.

Key players: Long renowned for their conservative game plan, South Africa have an ace up their sleeve in the shape of full-back Willie le Roux, one of the world's very best counter-attackers. Often used at first receiver, Le Roux is able to cause confusion in opposition defences, opening up space for South Africa's strike runners elsewhere in the backline. In 2015 he has been joined by Bulls full-back Jesse Kriel, who has slotted in seamlessly at outside centre, offering a similar running threat. Veteran scrum-half Fourie du Preez's ability to control the game will be key. 

Up front Eben Etzebeth is already regarded as one of the top locks in world rugby, and has made the post-Bakkies Botha era a lot easier. Still only 23, he already has a wealth of international experience, and combines incredible athleticism with the fire needed to do the dirty work in the tight five. Another player with that sort of fire is Schalk Burger, and while he might have calmed down a bit compared to his first years of international rugby, Burger has really stepped up as a player. Now versatile enough to play across the back row, he has also shown his leadership abilities, taking over the captaincy in the absence of Jean de Villiers during the Rugby Championship. Bismarck du Plessis is widely regarded as the best hooker in the world.

Profile: Historically the second best team in world rugby, South Africa actually had a winning record against New Zealand before their re-entry into international rugby after Apartheid. The All Blacks have overtaken them since, but the Springboks remain New Zealand's biggest  rivals. They have won two World Cups since readmission, including the historic success in 1995 on home soil.

Rugby in South Africa has played a major role in race issues, with the sport controlled the white population until the end of Apartheid. It was for that reason that Nelson Mandela's presence at the 1995 World Cup, wearing a Springbok jersey, had such importance. Chester Williams' place in the team was also key beyond simple sporting reasons, but the issue remains very much alive today, with regular discussions on quotas and the pace of racial transformation in South African teams making headlines.

South Africa's style has traditionally relied on big, powerful men to hammer the opposition into submission. That was the strategy employed by Jake White to great effect on the way to success at the 2007 World Cup, combined with one of the greatest lineout technicians of them all in Victor Matfield.

Matfield is still going strong, and Heyneke Meyer's team follow a similar strategy, albeit with the flair of Willie le Roux to offer some variety. While Meyer has talked about a more expansive game, it still feels like the Springboks' best chance revolves around a bruising pack and a pacy backline. In Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie they look set at fly-half but injuries and age mean that it could be a relatively young backline with the exception of Bryan Habana and Ruan Pienaar.

The centre partnership looked to be a real concern with Jean de Villiers only just returning from injury and very few options at outside centre, but the performances of Damien de Allende and Jesse Kriel have eased those fears.

Prospects in 2015: South Africa have been handed a relatively easy group, with anything less than first place a huge underachievement. If they do that, a quarter-final against the runner-up of Pool A should be a tantalising prospect. That will likely be one of England, Australia or Wales, and if they can get through that game, a potential semi-final with New Zealand will probably be the reward. At the moment a loss in the last four to the All Blacks seems most likely for the Springboks.

Fixtures:

19 Sep – 16:45 v Japan, Brighton
26 Sep – 16:45 v Samoa, Birmingham
3 Oct – 16:45 v Scotland, Newcastle
7 Oct – 16:45 v USA, Olympic Stadium, London

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