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Write them off at your peril: Springboks 2022 in review

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It may seem a bit premature to review the Springboks’ year just one game before the end of the season, but with 12 of 13 games played and several players unavailable for selection due to the last Test falling outside of the official window, why not take some time to consider the year that was in the build-up to Saturday?

The numbers

If South Africa were to win their final test against England – no mean feat – they would end 2022 with a 62 per cent win ratio, the same as 2021, when they won eight of 13 matches. However, coming off the high-ranking position they enjoyed at the end of the 2019 World Cup, the team managed to cling to the top spot in 2021 and subsequently slipped to fourth in 2022, where they are likely to finish the year barring the unlikely scenario of them beating England by more than 15 points, in which case they will finish third.

But numbers can be misleading. Of the five games the Boks lost in 2022, there was only one in which they were never really at the races: the 17-25 loss to Australia in Adelaide, where the Boks scored two late consolation tries to make the score look respectable. The Boks were in with a sniff in the last ten minutes during each of the other four losses, losing by 12, four, three and one points respectively.

For additional perspective, during the 12-point loss against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, the Boks were in the lead with seven minutes to play, and they were one man up, 15 against 14. They will scratch their heads for some years to come regarding how they let that one slip through their fingers with poor decision-making in the closing stages.

Selection posers

This year has left numerous question marks regarding the thinking of the leadership when it comes to team selection. A number of players were introduced straight into the Bok fold after returning from long periods not playing, notably Elton Jantjies, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Steyn, who all looked off the boil and rusty in their first games back.

The coaching team kept emphasising that there weren’t other games available to give these players minutes at the time, but at their age it did beg the question of whether the Springboks would gain anything from chucking in the rusty old guard or whether they would have been better served by building depth and bleeding younger players who were in form in the United Rugby Championship prior to the incoming tour and the Rugby Championship.

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(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Two Tests stand out: one is the second test against Wales, in which Jacques Nienaber made no fewer than 14 changes and got what most people expected: a talented team on paper without cohesion or flow. It just never clicked on the night.

The second stand-out in terms of selection head-scratchers was the Ellis Park Test against the All Blacks. Jasper Wiese had a cracker of a test in Nelspruit and was surprisingly dropped to the bench to make room for Duane Vermeulen. Secondly, after his man-of-the-match performance against the All Blacks in Nelspruit, the decision to drop Malcolm Marx to the bench and start Joseph Dweba. While Dweba has a lot of potential and will likely be part of the Boks setup for years to come, this selection made no sense. Dweba didn’t cope well with the pressure, and a couple of crucial line-out misses in key areas of the field gifted the initiative and momentum to the All Blacks. The Boks’ hands were forced, and with most of the bench coming on before the break, it was the home team that ran out of puff in the last 10 minutes of the game.

Winning is a habit

The one thing that will be concerning to the Boks when reflecting on 2022 is their inability to capitalise on opportunities presented in opposition 22 and, in the same breath, their inability to close out tight games. Contrary to the games lost, which were mostly close, of the seven games the Boks did win in 2022 to date, they won six by more than two converted scores (more than 14 points). Aside from the first Wales Test, in which Damian Willemse stepped up to slot the winning penalty, 2022 was a year where the Boks either lost narrowly or won convincingly but struggled to close out the nailbiters, which is concerning.

Most World Cup knockout games are more prone to be decided by a single score, and the Boks have not found a way in 2022 to consistently be on the right side of such results. Champion teams find a way of closing out tight games, and in the run-in to the 2019 World Cup the Boks managed to build this muscle. Yes, there were one or two referee calls that could have swung some results the other way, especially in the games against Ireland and France, but it is a long shot to think that South Africa lost those games solely because of the referee. There were kinks in their armour exposed by these two top-ranked teams, and the Boks would do themselves a disservice to merely take away the referee calls as a reason for the losses when reflecting on these games.

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Looking ahead to 2023

Clearly, the Springboks are not the favourites for the 2023 World Cup, but then again, as a Springboks supporter, that is not necessarily a bad thing. For some unexplainable reason, the Boks haven’t generally coped well with the favourites tag in the past. During each of the three World Cups won by the Springboks, they entered the tournament more as potential dark horses who could cause an upset rather than as favourites.

The recent string of losses means the Boks go into 2023 somewhat under the radar. While they did get it wrong selection-wise in a number of tests in 2022, there were a lot of questions answered in the process. One of them is that the Boks backline still lacks a bit of bite without Willie le Roux. He is still the ultimate playmaker in the Boks setup. A character that South African fans love to hate, in 2022 Willie showed he is indispensable and a key part of the Boks attacking spine.

It was also a year in which Jaden Hendrikse supplanted Herschel Jantjies in the No 9 pecking order, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie staked claims to become regular starters, and Jasper Wiese all but cemented his status as the top dog in the run for the No. 8 jersey. Questions still remain over the Boks’ depth at No. 10, where a promising cameo from Manie Libbok in the second half against Italy gave some hope that the Boks can build around him as a viable back-up to Pollard in the No. 10 jersey (or push him for the starting role).

The Springboks will probably go to 2023 World Cup as one of the most settled teams, with a clear understanding of the Nos. 1 and 2 in each position. They are also one of the teams that opposition sides will dread to face in the knockout stages. The Springboks play a brand of rugby built around strong but clinical set pieces and a suffocating defence.

Does that make them frontrunners? Absolutely not. Should they be written off? History will tell you that you do so at your own peril.

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