By finishing second behind defending champions New Zealand in Pool B at the Rugby World Cup, the Springboks have done pretty much what was expected the day the draw was made a few years ago. As predictable as this has been, there have been some lessons learnt about the team along the way, with a quarterfinal against either Ireland, Japan or Scotland looming next Sunday.
Here is what we’ve learnt from the Springboks’ exploits in Japan:
It ain’t over until Bongi Mbonambi says so
When the Springboks left for Japan, Malcolm Marx, anointed the best hooker in the world in certain pockets in the country, was understood to be the starting hooker for the Boks. Mbonambi, whose calling card has always been hard work, bided his time and basically pursued that starting spot to the ends of the earth, which was Japan in this case.
He may not have Marx’s size, bulk or explosiveness – qualities that strangely become becalmed when the Lions hooker starts missing with his line-out throws – but Mbonambi more than makes up for that by nailing all his line-out throws, doing his work in the scrums and making a general nuisance of himself thanks to his indefatigability.
Coach Rassie Erasmus has recognised this, and Mbonambi was sat in cotton wool for the quarterfinals when the Boks played their last group game against Canada.
Erasmus and Jürgen Klopp have never been seen together
A bit like Jake White with the whole fetcher debate all those years ago, Liverpool coach Klopp surprised all and sundry a few years ago when he said the media was the greatest playmaker he knew.
On the face of it, the only similarity between Klopp and Erasmus is that they’re ever-smiling, but looking at the latter’s defensive approach – a rush defence aimed at harassing the ball-carrier into a mistake the Boks can pounce on – the two have similar beliefs when it comes to the creative qualities of defence. With regular playmakers Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux struggling, to borrow from a colleague, to put team-mates away “like Gerrie Nel does”, the defence has come in handy as an extra creator.
The Boks have dancing feet, if they want ...
That said, the Boks have no shortage of players who can create that proverbial something out of nothing for themselves thanks to their dancing feet.
Winger Cheslin Kolbe has made this abundantly clear by being the menace-in-chief to defences in the tournament, while Warrick Gelant and the newly arrived Damian Willemse have shown flashes of having similar intentions when they have played.
But the Boks appear to have no inclination to engage in that kind of game, especially with the knockout stages looming.
The Bok pack’s brutality is a thing of ugly beauty
Beast Mtawarira is back to his, ahem, beastly best, whispering sweet nothings to his opponents as he grinds them into the turf at scrum time. Lood de Jager is restored to his rightly place in the starting line-up (when fit and on form, he’s South Africa’s best lock). Pieter-Steph du Toit just keeps on trucking.
Siya Kolisi is fully fit and Duane Vermeulen is regaining the physical edge that made him “Thor”. And with Bomb Squad members Steven “Spicy Plum” Kitshoff, the brooding Marx, Vincent “Mr Incredible” Koch and the offloading Bakkies Botha that is RG Snyman, it’s tough not to recognise South Africa’s as possibly the best pack at this World Cup.
Schalk Brits is having the time of his life
Taken to Japan as the head cheerleader, Brits hasn’t disappointed and he’s absolutely everyone’s favourite. Already a popular figure in the Bok team, the 38-year-old has been a firm favourite with the ball boys and girls (because he bows to them when they give him the ball), a constant joking companion with the referees (probably because he’s the same age as them), and presents a friendly face not altogether associated with a typical Bok team (we do insularity a little too well, sometimes). Simply put, the diminutive hooker has charmed the pants off everyone.
Somebody remarked that, after hanging up his boots for the second time, he should think about diplomacy as his next calling.
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