As the first to arrive in Japan, the Boks have been adopted by the hosts’ fans as possibly their second-favourite team.
When Rassie Erasmus fronted his first press conference as Springbok head coach and SA Rugby director on March 1 last year, he attended an engagement in a borrowed jacket.
As fitting as that bit of wardrobe malfunction was – few jobs are as temporary as Bok head coach – it was probably the last time Erasmus would do anything unplanned in his new role.
His past 18 months in charge have been a triumph of the kind of foresight rarely associated with South African rugby.
That is why the Boks – who open their Rugby World Cup campaign with the game to end all games, a clash against defending champions New Zealand, on Saturday – went to Japan earlier this month as genuine contenders to win their third title.
The main reason for that is the miraculous turnaround in a side that was losing games to such rugby luminaries as Italy in 2016. Said turnaround is due to Erasmus coming in and working out what the Boks needed to do to be competitive, feared even, again.
It turns out that all the Boks needed to do was remember their DNA of big, nasty forwards, a fly half who can kick for territory as well as poles, and a rabid defence that, more often than not, is the team’s main playmaker.
It’s not a game plan that stirs the passions, but it certainly douses the passionate ambitions of the opposition.
If you want proof of that, just ask the All Blacks. In the past four games they have played against the Boks, the Brazil of rugby are a mere point ahead in the series, having won two, lost one and drawn another one.
It’s a statistic that makes Erasmus’ men feared not only by the All Blacks, Italy, Namibia and Canada in Pool B, but also by whichever team they are likely to encounter in the knockout stages. That is why the opener against New Zealand is probably not as life or death as it has been portrayed.
Conventional wisdom suggests that winning that game is the easiest way to avoid Ireland in the quarterfinals, with Scotland or hosts Japan the supposed easier options to face from Pool A.
But the truth is that one can’t see Ireland champing at the bit to play against either South Africa or New Zealand, regardless of their recent results against the teams.
So if there is a reason to win the opener in Yokohama on Saturday, it is to preserve an age-old tradition of a World Cup being won by a team that won all seven of its matches, although such is the envisaged competitiveness of the tournament this time around that this may well be the first Webb Ellis Trophy captured by a team with a bloodied nose from the group stages.
Looking at the all important clash against New Zealand, the Boks are surprisingly the more settled team.
Having arrived in Japan a full two weeks before the tournament begins, they will have been acclimatised not only to the time zones, but also to Japan’s weather, which seems to alternate from hot and humid to the occasional thunderstorm.
As the first World Cup team to arrive in Japan, the Boks have been adopted by the hosts’ fans as probably their second-favourite team, if footage from Asia is anything to go by. More importantly, the Boks are more settled where it matters, in rugby terms.
While there may be a question mark over whether prop Frans Malherbe has been pulling his considerable weight of late, or indeed if the Frans Steyn Erasmus is putting so much faith in from the bench is the same as the one who won the 2007 World Cup, their match-day squad of 23 is settled.
The same can’t be said for the All Blacks, who lost Luke Jacobson to a concussion on Friday and had to replace him with Shannon Frizell in that troublesome position of blindside flank.
Adding to the three-time champions’ problems is the seeming indecision of whether Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga will play at fly half, and the fact that Brodie Retallick – the lock forward who is the backbone of their pack – will only be fully fit in time for the knockout stages.
Given the state they were in a couple of years ago, nobody would hold it against the Boks if they didn’t win this tournament (Erasmus’ contract was always until the 2023 edition), but they are in with an incredible chance of burgling it.
Given how they thrive on building momentum, the Springboks’ five-game unbeaten run this year has put them firmly in the conversation as one of the Rugby World Cup title contenders. As tempting as installing them as favourites is, they are not even the tier one favourites to win the tournament (they probably fall into tier two with Ireland and Wales).
Below is a breakdown of the several contenders’ claims as favourites to win it.
TIER ONE CONTENDERS – New Zealand:
Ranked the second-best team in the world these days, the three-time champions’ results this year, which included a narrow win over Argentina, a draw against the Springboks and a record defeat against the Wallabies, have led many to conclude that Steve Hansen’s men are there for the taking.
Their forwards may have been bullied in the odd game, and time has been taken away from them in attack, however, few teams are able to solve problems better than the All Blacks.
England: The great strength of Eddie Jones’ team is their depth, his attention to detail and the fact that he has lived and coached in Japan.
Wherever you look in the 31-man squad, there’s cover for just about any eventuality, a situation that has ended up with a man of the celestial gifts of Danny Cipriani being left out. But the thing with rugby matches is that you can only play 23 players at a time, and New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and Wales have match-day squads to counter anything England have by way of talent.
Yet, looking at England’s results in the build-up to the World Cup, during which they have beaten Wales and Ireland, they have looked like the team to carry Europe’s hunt for a second Webb Ellis trophy.
TIER TWO CONTENDERS – Ireland:
Joe Schmidt’s men have only lost out on being the team to push New Zealand for tournament favourite status on the basis of their recent results in the Six Nations and after taking more than 50 points in their warm-up against England. But, as the best team in the world last year, which saw them record a Six Nations Grand Slam – beating Australia in Australia and the All Blacks in Ireland – they can’t have suddenly become a bad team.
This is an incredibly well-drilled team with possibly a more evolved version of the Boks’ defence and the best tactical kickers at halfback in Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton. That said, their record of never having won a quarterfinal at the World Cup is a monkey they have to get off their backs.
Wales: Warren Gatland’s men have been knocking on the door of rugby supremacy for a while now and, after making the 2011 semifinals, they may well be ready to mount a similar assault on winning their first World Cup.
THE SPOILERS – France: The three-time finalists have been picking the same team, which is very un-French, and looked rather competitive in the build-up to the World Cup. Add players such as Antoine Dupont and winger Damian Penaud, and you have a team waiting to spoil somebody’s World Cup.
Argentina: Having campaigned in the Super Rugby tournament as the Jaguares all year, making the final and suffering largely minor defeats in the Rugby Championship, the 2007 third-place finishers are going to be nobody’s walkovers.
Japan: The hosts’ desperation to celebrate that fact with a place in the quarterfinals should not be underestimated. Apparently they’ve been training at 25% above match intensity, and the presence of former All Blacks fly half Tony Brown in their coaching ranks means they’ll be tricky to contain in attack.
Scotland: This is another team that likes to give it a rip on the day and should be careful of losing that second-place finish in Pool A.