Next mission for the Boks — dominate between World Cups

20 days ago

The Boks have won the past two Rugby World Cups, which has given the country so much joy and hope that it might seem greedy to demand more of them.

Rugby World Cup - Figure 1
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If you had asked just about any South African in the minutes leading up to last year’s final in Saint-Denis if they would have traded every win between the World Cups to guarantee victory at the tournament, the answer would have been “yes”.

But with the benefit of hindsight and distance from those emotionally charged weeks, is it time to pose a different question? Is the next stage of the Boks’ evolution not only to win a third consecutive Rugby World Cup (RWC) title in Australia in 2027 (that goal is a constant), but also to become the most dominant team between World Cups?

It’s easy to dismiss this idea in the heat of a World Cup campaign, when focus is narrowed to a single objective for the right to be called world champions.

As South Africans we know how great that feeling is, and how much it means to the country. Ireland, who were the best team in the two years leading up to RWC 2023, and France, the next-best team in that period, would probably have traded a bunch of wins to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

And that’s understandable when your country has never won it. But the Boks have four world titles. Surely their next objective must be to raise their winning percentage to somewhere around the 80% mark and dominate the Rugby Championship as well as to win on the road more often.

They last won the Championship in 2019, when, as a World Cup year, it was truncated.

You have to go back to 2009, which was before Argentina joined the southern hemisphere showpiece, for the last time the Boks won a full version of the Rugby Championship (then called the Tri-Nations).

Rugby World Cup - Figure 2
Photo Daily Maverick

Since the inception of the Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations in 1996, the Boks have won four World Cups – one more than New Zealand and two more than Australia. But they have only won the Championship four times in 28 years. The All Blacks have won it 20 times and the Wallabies four. 

Both teams line up for the national anthems before the World Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Dan Mullan / Getty Images)

Emulate the All Blacks

The All Blacks of 2010-2019 were perhaps the most dominant sports team of all time – in any discipline.

From the start of the 2010 international season to the quarterfinal of RWC 2019 when they beat Ireland 46-14, the All Blacks played 131 Tests and won 115, with 12 defeats and four draws for an 88% winning ratio.

They were, on average, 20 points better than every team, every time they played. It was staggering.

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Of course, it might be asking too much for the Boks to achieve that sensational level of dominance because things have changed.

Notably, the rise of Ireland and France means that the competition is harder than it was between 2010 and 2019.

The Boks are better too, and Wales, in a slump now, have also been better. Scotland have improved while England always r­emain a threat, and even Argentina are better, as recent wins over the All Blacks show.

Unreasonable?

Despite this, though, is it unreasonable to see the Boks raise that winning percentage to somewhere around 80%, at least for this period until RWC 2027?

Rugby World Cup - Figure 3
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Coach Rassie Erasmus does think it’s an unreasonable demand, especially against the Springboks’ historical 67% winning percentage. “I’m not sure that’s realistic, to be honest with you,” Erasmus told this writer when the question was asked earlier this year.

“I’m not sure that building a squad, trialling players, giving players opportunities, improving on squad depth and transforming the team – I don’t mean in terms of black and white players, I mean transform in the sense of trying to innovate and be cutting edge, [which] means you can lose a few Tests.

“We tried things [between 2021 and 2023] and lost a few matches, but we wanted to find answers to problems. It would be wonderful if we could win 80% or so of matches between World Cups. But I suppose you have to ask, do you want your answers by the time you get to RWC or not? Covid messed us around in 2020 but we start with a clean slate this year.

“I would rather win the World Cup again than sit at an 88 or 82% winning ratio, but not win the World Cup. I’m not saying I don’t want to get the winning percentage up, of course I do, but to win the World Cup we will have to take some chances with youngsters in building for 2027.”

There is no faulting Erasmus’s logic. He and former head coach Jacques Nienaber took over an ailing team in 2018 and turned them into World Cup winners in 18 months by stripping the game back and building on set-piece strength, defence and clever tactical kicking.

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The Boks added layers to that between 2021 and 2023, although losing the 2020 season to Covid was a setback.

The attacking game has grown immensely while the depth of quality players has deepened to the point where there are almost three world-class players in every position.

Erasmus, naturally, didn’t want to put undue pressure on himself and the squad by saying they want to up their winning percentage and be victorious in the Rugby Championship more than once in a four-year cycle, but the groundwork has been laid.

In fact, the Boks are already on track to be the dominant force. They have won 13 of their past 15 Tests (before this weekend’s clash against Wales at Twickenham), which is an 87% winning ratio.

Erasmus, canny as ever, might be playing down the Boks’ ideas of dominance, while planning to do just that. The stats show they are already in that stratosphere.

They just have to stay there now. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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