Boks: Key European building block

Siya Kolisi (Photo supplied by SA Rugby)
Siya Kolisi (Photo supplied by SA Rugby)

Cape Town - “Back to square one” would be an overly brutal call.

But if the gradually reawakening Springboks - remember, still a tenuous 50 percent in win record terms this season - manage, say, only a humdrum two (or heaven forbid fewer) victories on their four-match European tour next month, some doubters will almost inevitably make fresh noise.

That would be despite the striking gains made over the course of the most acid examination of them all this year: the thrilling, shared two-match challenge in the Rugby Championship against the world champion All Blacks.

READ: Springboks v All Blacks - 5 talking points

It was abundantly clear in Wellington and Pretoria that South Africa have both greater quality and desire, against the best nation on the planet, than many of us would have imagined just before Rassie Erasmus’s head coaching tenure began.

Now the big challenge is to kick on from the gains made against the old enemy, and start knocking over more moderate foes with a better degree of consistency.

So this is where the end-of-year tour becomes an important barometer of whether the Boks are truly RWC 2019 contenders in Japan: they are yet to prove that they have the mettle to win regularly enough off their own turf.

One thing Heyneke Meyer was good at - ahead of leading the Boks to a narrow semi-final loss to New Zealand and then bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup - was spearheading successful raids on the northern hemisphere, despite the hazards of season-ending fatigue.

He engineered a three-match clean sweep in his maiden season (2012 - Ireland, Scotland, England) and another in 2013 (Wales, Scotland, France) even if things receded to two from four in 2014, the year before the World Cup in the UK.

If the current Boks want to confirm their renaissance, they must set themselves a minimum requirement of three victories from the four-game roster: England (November 3), France (November 10), Scotland (November 24) and Wales (November 24).

It seems all the more realistic when you consider that this tour dodges Ireland, the 2018 Six Nations champions and achievers of the Grand Slam, who are also presently ranked second on the World Rugby ladder.

Getting England out of the way first is also no bad thing, despite the match coming outside of the international window.

The hosts will be itching for revenge at Twickenham after their 2-1 series loss in South African during June, but at the same time many of the Bok players should still be buzzing from their undoubted heroism and long tracts of pleasing play across the two All Black epics of late.

No away game against a Six Nations side - generally barring Italy, with respect - can ever be taken for granted, but both France (eighth-ranked) and Scotland (sixth) look beatable, and then the Boks end with a crunch meeting against a Welsh side a little deceptively lying third as things stand.

Seeing off Wales in Cardiff would be a monkey off the back for the Boks, as they have lost to those foes an uncharacteristic four times in the last five encounters – something flying jarringly in the face of deeper bilateral history.

Of course it could also be a perilous exercise as it is the “one foot on a plane home to summer” fixture, but Erasmus’s troops should be game for one last, furious charge considering that bad run of modern results against the men in scarlet - including the dubious, experimental match in Washington DC to mark the coach’s debut at the strategic helm a few months ago.

The next few weeks will hopefully see a minimum of hard-pressed, core Bok players exposed to the closing stages of the Currie Cup: exceptions may be made for those who have been largely peripheral and need game time, or recent returnees from injury layoffs.

Instead conditioning and mental refreshment, in the majority of instances, will be key to a successful mission to Europe.

What is good about the end-of-year tour is that it fairly closely replicates a “World Cup” scenario, given the requirement (and all abroad, too) of four games in as many weeks.

Remember, during the Rugby Championship, teams play a maximum of two matches on the trot before a bye weekend.

The 2018 European tour is critical in only helping, ideally, to stiffen Bok squad unity and camaraderie, and educate some of the younger players, in particular, about the intensity levels required from one week to another ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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