Cape Town - It is on record, from someone who should know best, that the Rugby Championship-winning Springbok squad’s spirit is as high as it has been for at least the last decade.
Popular, stalwart front-ranker Tendai Mtawarira recently stated as much … and he is the lone starting survivor from the respective Bok line-ups which clinched the southern hemisphere annual titles respectively in 2019 (against Argentina, Salta) and 2009 (against New Zealand in Hamilton).
His views have been reflected in personal performances of late, as the just-turned 34-year-old has shown much of the appetite and vigour of his more youthful days in Bok colours.
But the general camp “gees”, as is often so aptly put in Afrikaans, among Rassie Erasmus’s present charges has also been noticed by legends like Morne du Plessis and Schalk Burger.
Speaking to Sport24 after a Laureus Sport for Good SA breakfast on Wednesday, also attended by RWC 2015 skipper Jean de Villiers, both weighed in enthusiastically about the bunch of players headed off soon for the major challenge of RWC 2019 in Japan.
Du Plessis led the Boks to landmark series successes which included the 1976 All Blacks on our shores and 1980 British and Irish Lions, while also managing the Bok immortals of the 1995 World Cup, the country’s first Webb Ellis Cup triumph and on maiden appearance in the event.
Widely-travelled, 86 Test-cap loose forward and World Cup 2007 winner Burger, meanwhile, is settling back into life in his beloved Western Cape after several seasons on the books of Saracens in England.
“Look, I am really on the outskirts these days but an outstanding visual at present for me, if you like, is to see the obvious spirit and self-confidence in the team,” said Du Plessis.
“I think that the overseas players who have come back are quite a big factor … those guys play in very competitive leagues, especially those active in France and England; guys like Cheslin (Kolbe) and Faf (de Klerk) are infusing self-belief and Rassie seems to have captured that.
“This doesn’t seem a team keen to go and just contend (at the World Cup) - they genuinely believe they can win it.
“When they ran on against the All Blacks at Wellington recently, they looked from the first minute like a side there to try to (knock them over), not just hold them to a reasonable score.
“If you have spirit, it then builds on itself, you know. Of course the opposite can happen and it snowballs if things start going wrong ... but this bunch seem to be well on the other curve.”
Asked about the “provincialism” aspect - something that has occasionally been said to have affected the harmony of Bok sides of the more distant past - Du Plessis said: “I can only speak for myself, but I always sensed in my time as player that it was such an ideal, a dream, to achieve that level of recognition that you largely left that behind (in joining the national set-up).
“I never experienced it in my time and I reckon it would be even more diminished now, if it existed at all. The modern guys play all over the world so when they come together there is probably less of a feeling of a certain province dominating the group, and so on.”
Burger, meanwhile, believes the spirit evident in the broad 2019 squad is significantly influenced by it having a “backbone”.
He explained: “There’s got to be something tangible beneath it to support that gees, otherwise it’s a bit of a bullshit production, isn’t it?
“I think with Rassie it’s almost like there’s been a big change in culture, a particularly clear understanding of what the minimum requirement is to play for the Boks ... so everyone is working for each other, whether it’s through a carry followed up by a good clean, or an average kick that is backed up by an exceptional chase.
“All of these things create energy, which makes us hard to play against. I think I enjoyed the Argentina game last weekend more than any of the others just for how relentless we were in our work-rate, the support for each other.
“That naturally breeds more general good vibes and trust within a team. It becomes quite easy to play your rugby then. This team has become a good watch.”
Burger acknowledged that when he started his Test career, and the squad wasn’t drawn as much as it is now from wide-ranging parts of the planet, groups of provincial players (some might brand them cliques) sticking together could be apparent.
“It’s natural in a way ... when you are a young, insecure player arriving on the Bok scene you will tend to stick behind your (provincial or franchise) talisman: perhaps Corne (Krige) if you were a Capetonian, Joost (van der Westhuizen) if from up north, or John (Smit) if from the Sharks.
“As we got more experienced, it became more natural to feel part of the broader environment.
“Don’t get me wrong, you have to give guys space for a short while if you’ve just joined Bok camp straight off a Super Rugby final ... for example in 2007, when the Bulls were buzzing and Sharks feeling quite the opposite; emotionally bruised.
“That’ll still be there to a limited extent, I guess.
“But then you (settle into common duty) and 95 percent or more of the Bok squad can be branded good mates. You get to that common goal pretty seamlessly, eventually.”
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing