Cape Town – An immediate, potential source of comfort for the touring Springboks is that it seems unlikely they will begin their four-Test European programme as badly as they did the equivalent missions in 2017 and 2016.
The Boks of that turbulent period - under Rassie Erasmus’s predecessor as head coach, Allister Coetzee - were put violently on the back foot after game one, each time.
It probably went a long way to explaining why the overall returns ended up being so poor: two wins out of four last year and nought from three in 2016, for an unflattering combined total of 2/7 and a win percentage rate for the two northern treks of 28.57.
Last year’s opener was especially unedifying: a record 38-3 hammering from Ireland in Dublin and by four tries to nil.
But the first tour clash a year earlier also saw the Boks notably sluggish out of the blocks, even if the margin of defeat was less embarrassing: they were comfortably beaten 37-21 by this weekend’s looming opponents, England, and it took a late try by Willie le Roux to give the visitors a modicum of respectability on the scoreboard.
Just one reason why the Boks should not be shown up too badly this weekend - even if they don’t prevail - is the host nation’s own mood (and recent record) of uncertainty.
Eddie Jones’s charges have, unusually, won only one of their last six Tests in 2018, the dead-rubber closing match against the Boks during the June series on our shores where South Africa had already closed the deal in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.
But this Bok squad also undergoes the latest end-of-year tour fuelled - and this is a welcome change - by the knowledge of their gallant successive showings this year against the still undisputed “benchmark” side on the planet, the All Blacks.
That is a big point of difference from the situation at the outset of the previous two Euro expeditions.
The rest of the world, less than a year out from RWC 2019 in Japan, will certainly have taken reverent note of South Africa’s narrow win (in Wellington) and then just as tight defeat (Pretoria) against New Zealand; these once-incomparable bilateral rivals shared the scoreboard points 66-66 from the pair of extremely memorable, high-quality contests.
By stark contrast, when the 2016 Boks went on their European tour, they had just come off a wretched, unprecedented 57-15 home loss to the All Blacks so confidence would not exactly have been coursing through their veins.
Last year, too, the Boks had at least thrown a kitchen sink at the New Zealanders at Newlands, but still ended up on the losing side (25-24) against weary opponents who had travelled there from Argentina and with the Rugby Championship already buried deeply in the bag.
While it will be a shock, based on their illuminating competitiveness against NZ in 2018, if the Boks take a real pasting at Twickenham on Saturday, Erasmus and his lieutenants will also be fully mindful of the importance of simply beating these foes, even if it is by a hair’s breadth.
Lose to a team with the sort of fragility the English currently show and some, hard-to-please Bok observers will rapidly start pointing anew to Erasmus’s win record: it would slide from exactly 50 percent (five out of ten) right now to an even more precarious 45.45 with three tricky tour fixtures still to go at a traditionally vulnerable time of the year for southern hemisphere-based players.
Bear in mind that the much-lampooned Coetzee ended his two years as Bok coach with a 44 percent overall record (11/25), so Erasmus would be precariously close on his own, up-to-the-minute results chart if the battle of “Twickers” is surrendered.
But that is taking the glass-half-empty view, of course.
Many other Bok monitors will be feeling (justifiably?) chipper about the chances of the national side having a first Euro tour in three where they win more than they lose.
Certainly the core group of fairly settled players seems pleasingly broader than it did when Coetzee led his two expeditions across the equator, and even the more peripheral or outright rookie customers named by his successor for the 36-strong party after the Currie Cup final offer the hope of better quality than some of “Toetie’s” dubious picks.
When the Boks took that unedifying, tour-starting walloping in Dublin, for example, Coetzee had a then psychologically brittle Elton Jantjies in the key flyhalf spot, and the Boks were especially bedevilled by the limitations as a group of a back three comprising Andries Coetzee, Dillyn Leyds and Courtnall Skosan.
The 2018 Springboks suddenly have a decent stock of sharp, hungry wings to choose from, while Handre Pollard is back at No 10 and showing welcome renewed authority ... with Jantjies, as an impact factor off the bench, similarly looking a much more assertive figure of late.
Perhaps the most labouring Springbok of all in the Dublin shocker, inside centre Damian de Allende, currently cuts an altogether more bullish, urgent and inventive character than was evident that day.
He is not alone in that phenomenon, either.
Broadly speaking, these Boks look geared to hit European pitches running, which would make a pleasant change from the last two tours there.
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