By Tafi Mhaka
The thrill of watching some of the greatest comebacks in sports is the closest most sports fans will come to sporting nirvana. Nothing beats a winner teeming with unstoppable determination and indefatigable spirit.
Think Muhammad Ali in the Rumble of the Jungle in 1974, Michael Jordan in 1996 – back from a one-year hiatus on the golf course, Liverpool coming back from 0-3 down against AC Milan in Istanbul to win the UEFA Champions League final in 2005, Brazil grabbing the gold medal in the 2016 Olympic men’s football final – two years after Germany demolished Brazil 7-1 in the FIFA World Cup final held in Brazil– and the Springboks trouncing the All-Blacks in the final of the Rugby 2019 World Cup in Japan?
So, how can a deflated Springbok team soften the agony of suffering a crushing 42-point loss to the All Blacks at home? The players must first admit things are not as bad as they appear. They are much worse than that. The loss on Saturday was not pretty to watch at all. Not if you live in this rugby mad part of the Southern Hemisphere.
The Springbok set up must be patient and learn to play the waiting game, as the road to rugby redemption could be long and arduous; and a bit less sensationalism from some highly-regarded rugby pundits from the get go would be most welcome as well.
“There’s no question that structures in New Zealand rugby is the template South Africa needs to follow.” That’s quite a big statement from Nick Mallet. Perhaps he would like to retract this statement on second thought and offer much more than that? Because I’m afraid this is not enough from the much-respected former Springbok coach. Coach Mallet is a well-traveled rugby man, who has had fairly successful coaching stints in France, Italy and South Africa. Would it be too much to ask him to focus on proffering suggestions that recognise the skill sets of South African players and not gloat about structures foreign to South Africa?
Yes, the team lost and badly at that, but the Springboks lost to what probably is the finest rugby squad in the history of the game and perhaps one of the best teams in the history of competitive sports.
It is all too easy to say ‘let us follow the New Zealanders’. But the New Zealanders did not xerox South African structures after the 2007 World Cup, did they? Instead they clearly worked diligently on finding a formula that leverages the skill sets of the players at the disposal of the All-Black establishment: So while the New Zealanders have plenty going for them at the moment – great depth in players, great coaching staff – most striking of all, is they play the kind of rugby All-Black players can execute with breathtaking precision.
Much like South Africa managed to do with Joel Stransky et al in 1995. I stand to be corrected but I doubt if Kitch Kristie and Francois Pienaar credited coaches and administrators from the Southwest Pacific Islands for the great Springbok victory in 1995. Nor did Jack White defer to the New Zealand set up in 2007. This is not to say South Africa should not take heed of fresh developments in the modern game. But, before we get there, a holistic analysis of everything that has gone wrong and right since 1995 should be the perfect place to start.
Right about then, in the early 1990s, was when the great West Indies cricket team, which had enjoyed phenomenal success in the 1970s and 1980s, began to falter, hopelessly. Legends of the game such as Clive Lloyd, Sir Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose, among others, had led the team from the Caribbean Islands to glory at the ICC Cricket World Cups in 1975 and 1979.
Although the team lost the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup in 1984, to a rank 66-1 outsider from Asia called India, by 43 runs, the West Indies sat atop the world of one-day-international and test cricket for the next 15 years in a manner that may never be repeated. Not by the West Indies, to begin with, anyway.
But the team from the Caribbean Islands did win the ICC Twenty 20 tournament twice, first in 2012, then recently in April this year, in a heart-stopping match that warmly reaffirmed everything magnificent about sport.
The Springboks have not quite sunk to the frighteningly low depths the West Indies wallowed in for close to seventeen years, as the Gauteng Lions made the Super Rugby final and the Springboks subdued Australia this month. Will a victorious northern hemisphere tour, this summer, kick start a much-needed comeback rather nicely? Yes, it might – or it might not.
Former British and Irish Lions, and England, flyhalf, Stuart Barnes, had this say about the match on Saturday, “The gulf between what were once the world’s traditional rugby superpowers was neatly summed up by the two flyhalves on display in Durban.
“Beauden Barrett produced one of the most ‘in your face’ attacking displays the game has seen. Making tries for others, scoring another pair for himself, he wreaked havoc, unleashed in a manner unprecedented. He is happy to play flat like the great Mark Ella did all those years ago, but Barrett runs with a speed that would have left David Campese for dead”.
Great assessment from Barnes, but Eddie Jones got it right, too, I must say. Unlike Mallet, Jones suggested copying the All-Blacks would be foolish, if not, somewhat suicidal.
“The thing that really annoys me about rugby at the moment, and I’ve got to say it, is that everyone tries to copy New Zealand,” Jones told Britain’s Sunday Times.
“Why? Come up with your own game. Everything we are doing now is about coming up with a game to beat New Zealand and to make them uncomfortable,” added Jones.
He may be playing mind games, but Jones is on to something here.
Before you say it, it is no secret transformation is a part of the game in South Africa, which many pundits blame for the demise of the Springboks. Former All Blacks and Cats Super Rugby coach, Laurie Mains, had this to say: “Unfortunately the quota system in South Africa is showing there are a number of players there that are not up to international level and therefore it breaks down their whole system.
But transformation is here; in fact, it is here to stay, Mr Mains. So the rugby establishment must find a long-term game plan for the national team, a working blueprint that makes room for transformation and strengthens the competitiveness of the Springboks. Now, more than ever, it is fairly clear that it is in every rugby fan’s interest to see to it that transformation works. It won’t be easy, no, it won’t be much fun, it won’t be pretty, but sporting immortality is calling the Springboks, yet again.
We must take heed of that call.