Ahead of the 2018 Rugby Championship, we preview the teams looking to get their hands on the coveted silverware. Next up, it is South Africa.
After declining form towards the end of the Heyneke Meyer era and two barren years under Allister Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus will lead the new-look Springboks into the Rugby Championship buoyed by a wave of optimism in the country.
Erasmus’ appointment as coach was met with mixed reactions. While the former Munster director of rugby is well-respected in South Africa, supporters of Coetzee were unhappy with the manner in which he was dismissed. However, after a 2-1 series win over England under the captaincy of Siya Kolisi – the first black player ever to lead the Springboks – Erasmus has momentarily silenced the critics.
Last year: It’s easy to forget that the Springboks headed into last year’s Rugby Championship riding a wave of optimism similar to the one created by Erasmus. Having seen off France 3-0 in the 2017 mid-year Test series, they further excited supporters with back-to-back wins over Argentina and a creditable away draw against Australia.
Coetzee stoked up tensions ahead of South Africa’s clash with New Zealand at North Harbour Stadium by suggesting that the All Blacks were “vulnerable”. However, his side capitulated in calamitous fashion in Auckland, crashing to a 57-0 loss. Another draw with the Wallabies followed before the tournament ended in a far more valiant defeat to New Zealand on home soil, leaving the Springboks third on the end-of-tournament table.
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This year: Erasmus, who was South Africa’s director of rugby at this time last year, will be in charge of their bid for a first Rugby Championship title since 2009.
2018 began with chaos for the Springboks as Coetzee – the second person of colour in history to coach the side – revealed his frustration with the South African Rugby Union (SARU) for offering him what he alleged was a “ceremonial” role under Erasmus should he refuse to give up the coaching reins.
This revelation did not go down well with transformation activists, but at least Erasmus’ team selection has left them satisfied for the time being. As well as appointing South Africa’s first ever black captain, the former Cheetahs and Stormers coach can also claim credit for handing test debuts to several promising players of colour – chief among them S’busiso Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi.
Erasmus’ tenure started off with a 22-20 loss to Wales, and the Springboks looked set for more heartbreak when they fell 24-3 down in the early stages of their first Test against England. However, they showed world-class resilience to bounce back and claim a 42-39 victory, followed up by another comeback win in Bloemfontein (23-12). Although they lost the third match 25-10, South Africa will be tremendously pleased with their start to the year.
The Springboks still head into the tournament as underdogs in comparison to the All Blacks and the Wallabies, but should be seen as a dark horse with renewed spirit and the potential to beat anyone on their day.
Ones to watch: All eyes will be on Siya Kolisi as he looks to lead South Africa to an historic tournament victory.
Elsewhere, Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies are locked in perennial battle for the number 10 jersey, which is the subject of heated debate in South Africa, with Damian Willemse also an option for Erasmus. Meanwhile, Aphiwe Dyantyi will be looking to continue his dream start to life in a Springbok jersey.
Prediction: They probably aren’t quite good enough to go all the way just yet, but South Africa certainly boast the quality to stand up to the best in the world. There are few more unpredictable teams in world rugby, but their grit against England suggested that the old Springbok determination has returned – albeit with a new face leading the charge. Second.
Saturday, 18 August: vs Argentina (home)
Saturday, 25 August: vs Argentina (away)
Saturday, 8 September: vs Australia (away)
Saturday, 15 September: vs New Zealand (away)
Saturday, 29 September: vs Australia (home)
Saturday, 6 October: vs New Zealand (home)