Do Boks have what it takes to rule the world?

To mea­sure progress, the only way is to com­pare to All Blacks

Sunday Times - - SPORT - By CRAIG RAY sports@times­me­

Com­ing off four wins in 12 tests, or a 33% win­ning ra­tio last year, the Spring­boks didn’t have a high bar to clear to be statistically bet­ter this year.

Their re­sults have im­proved, with five wins, two draws and a record loss in their open­ing eight matches.

But are the Spring­boks on a tra­jec­tory that will some­how put them in the same strato­sphere as the All Blacks any time in the near future?

And com­par­ing the Boks to the All Blacks is the only way to mea­sure real progress be­cause New Zealand are the stan­dard every team has to match to win a World Cup (or Rugby Cham­pi­onship).

The fact is the Spring­boks and All Blacks played out a thrilling World Cup semi­fi­nal in 2015 with the lat­ter win­ning 20-18.

New Zealand were the slightly bet­ter team on the day and de­served their vic­tory and the even­tual world ti­tle that fol­lowed against Aus­tralia a week later.

But how is it pos­si­ble that the Spring­boks, who were within touch­ing dis­tance of the All Blacks two years ago, lost their next three test matches against the world cham­pi­ons by an av­er­age score of 52-9?

Bok coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee has over­seen those three de­feats in Christchurch (41-13) and Dur­ban (57-15) last year, which pre­ceded the Al­bany de­ba­cle. In three tests against the All Blacks before yes­ter­day, the Spring­boks scored one try and con­ceded 23.

Does this Spring­bok team and man­age­ment staff have what it takes to be­come world cham­pi­ons in 2019 in Ja­pan? Has what we’ve seen this year given the im­pres­sion that the Boks, in their sec­ond year un­der the same coach, are on an up­ward curve?

Coet­zee took over the Bok team ranked third in the world. Their rank­ing dropped to sev­enth by the end of last year and before yes­ter­day, the Boks were back up to fourth. MEA­SUR­ING THE 2017 BOKS: Qual­ity of op­po­si­tion New Zealand aside, the Spring­boks have only played one team ranked in the top five this sea­son — Aus­tralia — and failed to beat them in two meet­ings.

The cor­ner­stone of a team in re­build­ing phase is get­ting the de­fence right

France: Les Bleus ar­rived in South Africa in June with a squad dec­i­mated by in­juries.

They were ranked sixth in the world to the Boks’ sev­enth. South Africa won the se­ries com­fort­ably with two tests played at al­ti­tude. The Boks did what was re­quired but the French asked al­most no tough ques­tions.

Ar­gentina: Los Pu­mas are in vir­tual free fall since com­ing fourth at the last World Cup. Com­ing into the Rugby Cham­pi­onship, they were ranked ninth.

Beat­ing them twice was the min­i­mum the Boks could ex­pect, though the win in Salta was the first time a Coet­zee Bok team won an away match.

Aus­tralia: Against an­other team re­build­ing, the Boks were per­haps for­tu­nate to earn a draw in Perth (23-23) just as they were un­for­tu­nate not to win in Bloem­fontein (27-27).

The Aussies re­main the only top-fiver­anked team the Boks have beaten (18-10 last year) in the last two years prior to yes­ter­day.

New Zealand: The Boks have been hu­mil­i­ated by the All Blacks in the last two years. DE­FENCE The cor­ner­stone of any team in a re­build­ing phase is get­ting the de­fence right. It’s some­thing the Boks failed to do last year with 35 tries con­ceded in their 12 tests, or a frac­tion un­der three per match.

Statistically, the Boks haven’t shown much im­prove­ment in that de­part­ment, which is odd con­sid­er­ing they have had one de­fence coach (Bren­dan Ven­ter) rather than four as they did last year.

Af­ter eight matches, the Spring­boks had con­ceded 21 tries — 2.6 per match — which is slightly bet­ter than last sea­son. When you con­sider that before last year the Boks had con­ceded only 1.53 tries per game be­tween 1891-2015, it’s still a wor­ry­ing trend.

When tak­ing out New Zealand’s eight tries in Al­bany, the Boks are con­ced­ing 1.8 tries per match, which is ac­cept­able. AT­TACK Af­ter scor­ing a measly 20 tries last year, the Boks have im­proved that as­pect of their play with 26 tries so far this sea­son, at just 3.25 per match, which is above their his­tor­i­cal 2.8 per match av­er­age.

Last year, the Spring­boks made 1 173 ball car­ries over 12 tests (97 per match) av­er­ag­ing 17.5 car­ries per line break. This year, they have made 790 car­ries (98 per match) av­er­ag­ing 16.8 car­ries per line break. These are mar­ginal gains at best.

An op­ti­mist would say the Spring­boks are mov­ing for­ward and im­prov­ing, though at a glacial pace in an arena where their strides need to be more ur­gent. A re­al­ist might con­clude that af­ter nearly two full sea­sons un­der Coet­zee, there is no in­di­ca­tion that the Boks are nar­row­ing the gap where it mat­ters.

A mirac­u­lous win at New­lands might change the nar­ra­tive, but any­thing less than vic­tory over New Zealand would sug­gest that Spring­bok rugby is still fall­ing be­hind the sport’s elite.

Pic­ture: Back­pagePix

Chee­tahs flanker Uzair Cassiem be­lieves the Spring­boks have stepped up a level since last year.

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