By Nick Said
CAPETOWN (Reuters) – South Africa’s superb revival over the past 15 months has taken them from one of their lowest ever periods to genuine Rugby World Cup contenders as they chase a third global title in Japan.
After picking up a bronze medal in England four years ago, the Boks won only 11 of their next 25 tests, including a first ever loss to Italy and a record 57-0 humiliation by New Zealand.
They were one-dimensional, lacking in intensity and seemingly directionless under former coach Allister Coetzee, with concerns over the individual skills of players and their ability to implement a successful game-plan.
Rassie Erasmus took over the side in March 2018 after being installed as Director of Rugby and the upswing in fortunes has been dramatic.
A home-series win over England was followed by an away success against New Zealand in Wellington and finally the Rugby Championship crown for the first time in a decade as the Boks head to the World Cup unbeaten this year.
Whereas at the end of 2017 there was a real sense of a lack of quality available, Erasmus was challenged over who to leave out from his World Cup squad of 31, and his final group has been met with universal approval from the demanding media and supporters of the side.
“I really believe this is the best 31 guys we could have picked who are in form, available and fit enough,” he said.
“We are in with a much better chance than 18 months ago. I wouldn’t tag us as favourites, but we have a much more realistic chance.”
Erasmus’ clever management of his players has provided opportunity for a number of new names to emerge and he now has strength in depth in most positions.
He can select world-class front rows on both the pitch and the bench, has four locks who could start without lowering the quality, and options in an array of loose-forwards to suit different styles of play.
There are three excellent scrumhalves, while Handre Pollard is a key figure at flyhalf and runs the game for the Boks, though his deputy Elton Jantjies can blow hot and cold and needs his pack to be on the front foot to be effective.
There is solidity in the centres and 2007 World Cup winner Frans Steyn provides a monster boot as well as plenty of muscle in the midfield, and the back three has the pace and trickery to exploit the spaces on the pitch.
There is no doubt that this Bok side can beat any other side in Japan, but the question remains whether they can put in three strong performances in a row from the quarterfinals onwards to lift the cup.
“I think for us the most important thing was to work on our consistency,” giant number eight Duane Vermeulen admitted last month. “But we are happy with where we are at the moment.”
The Boks open their campaign against New Zealand in Yokohama on Sept. 21 and will also play Italy, Namibia and Canada in their Pool B.
(Reporting By Nick Said, editing by Neil Robinson)