RUGBY’S 100-YEAR WAR
Respect at the heart of Boks and All Blacks battle
Back in 2009, South Africa was a different place. Social media platforms such as Twitter were in their infancy and smartphones weren’t as prevalent as they are today. State Capture was still a twinkle in the newly elected Jacob Zuma’s eye.
Back then, the Springboks were world champions, Tri-Nations champions and winners of the series against the British & Irish Lions. The Blitzboks were World Rugby Sevens Series champions while the Bulls were Super Rugby champions.
The good times didn’t last, though. The Boks surrendered the Tri-Nations title the following season, and failed to defend the World Cup in 2011.
By contrast, the New Zealand Rugby Union learned from the All Blacks’ three straight losses to the Springboks in 2009. They worked hard to implement new structures and strategies at a regional and international level.
The All Blacks proceeded to win eight Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship titles and two World Cups over the next 10 years. They turned the tables on their traditional foes, winning 17 out of 21 Tests against the Boks between 2010 and 2019. Over the course of those matches, they averaged 30 points and four tries per game.
Chasing the All Blacks
It’s worth reflecting on the bigger picture before discussing the rivalry in the present context.
Much has changed over the past four years, with the Boks earning global respect in the wake of their landmark win in New Zealand (2018), their triumph at the World Cup (2019) and their success against the Lions (2021). And yet, the coaches as well as the players are aware of the gap that continues to exist between the Springboks and the All Blacks.
In a recent conversation with DM168, head coach Jacques Nienaber went out of his way to make this point. While these Boks don’t fear the All Blacks, they do respect them for what they have achieved over the past decade.
“The Boks haven’t beaten New Zealand twice in one season to win the Freedom Cup since 2009,” Nienaber said. “That’s one of the things you have to push for after winning a World Cup. That is something the players have to chase.”
Fast forward to the present, where the Springboks are gearing up for two matches against the All Blacks. The first game on 25 September will mark the 100th fixture between the two great rugby nations.
It’s an important match in the context of a 100-year rivalry. What’s more, it will provide some clear answers regarding world rugby’s pecking order.
The Boks’ recent loss to the Wallabies on the Gold Coast has convinced critics that South Africa are there for the taking. Despite their status as world champions and their success against the Lions, the Boks will go into the first match against the All Blacks as underdogs. That – as well as the fact that the game will be staged in Townsville rather than in Dunedin due to the Covid-19 situation in New Zealand – will suit a Bok team that thrives when its backs are against a wall.
What the rivalry means to players
It would be a shame if the sideshows overshadowed the celebration of a long-standing rivalry. Indeed, when you speak to players past and present, you gain a deeper appreciation for what these match-ups mean and why the rivalry is integral to South African as well as New Zealand rugby culture.
John Smit won two Tri-Nations titles, a World Cup and a series against the Lions over the course of a 111-Test career. Playing against the All Blacks, however, remains one of his highlights.
“You debut twice for the Springboks. Your first debut is your first game for South Africa. Your second debut is your first game against the All Blacks,” Smit said.
“As a kid, you watch the Boks facing down the haka and competing against the All Blacks in what seems like the ultimate contest. Then you have the chance to be part of that tradition, and it’s very much a step up as it’s made out to be. Against the All Blacks, there’s always more at stake.”
Schalk Burger recalls watching the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington back in 1998: “After that game, we were so pumped that we decided to play a match in the back garden. We even soaked the grass with a hose pipe to emulate the wet conditions in New Zealand. All you want as a youngster growing up in South Africa is a chance to play against the All Blacks.”
“I’ve been privileged enough to get a few wins against the All Blacks during my career, but it was always a tough assignment.”
Jean de Villiers, who played 109 Tests for South Africa and led the Boks between 2012 and 2015, remembers a conversation with Jonah Lomu ahead of the 2015 World Cup. The great All Blacks wing shared Burger’s assessment regarding these matches.
“Jonah said that the New Zealanders feel the same way as us. As kids, they grow up with the desire to test themselves against the Boks. It’s a rivalry that’s as much a part of their rugby culture as it’s a part of ours.”
Clawing their way back
Overall, the Boks have struggled against the All Blacks in the professional era. Between 1996 and 2019, the All Blacks won 41 Tests and the Boks a mere 15. Twenty-five Tests have been played in New Zealand during this period, and only four of those have been won by the Springboks.
The nature of the rivalry changed in 2018, however, after the Springboks – under new coach Rassie Erasmus – scored a landmark victory in Wellington. Nobody saw that coming. In 2017, the Boks sustained a record 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Albany. They returned to New Zealand a year later with a new coach and a new mindset, yet few people gave them a chance of scoring an upset.
Former Bok coach Nick Mallett said that the team would do exceptionally well to lose by 10 points or fewer.
The Boks went on to win that match 36-34 and to end a nine-year drought in New Zealand. They lost 32-30 in the follow-up fixture in Pretoria. The most telling statement in the aftermath, though, was made by Steve Hansen. The All Blacks coach declared that the famous New Zealand-South Africa rivalry was alive and well, and that the Boks were well and truly back.
The Boks continued to progress in the ensuing years. In 2019, Cheslin Kolbe and Herschel Jantjies combined in the dying moments of a game staged in Wellington to steal a stunning 16-16 draw. The All Blacks hit back to beat the Boks 23-13 at the World Cup in Japan, although the contest was closer than the scoreline suggested.
Every one of the preceding 99 matches has had its own story. Every battle has mattered to both sets of players over the past 100 years. The outcome of the next two games between the Boks and All Blacks in Australia will determine which team deserves the unofficial title of “best in the world”.
“I’m looking forward to the coming clashes,” said De Villiers. “The All Blacks may feel that they have a point to prove when they meet the world champions. On the other hand, the Boks will remember what it felt like to lose to the All Blacks during the pool stage of the 2019 World Cup. Neither team will be holding back.
“I remember the great year we had in 2009, when we beat the Lions and then rode that momentum into the subsequent Tri-Nations,” De Villiers added. “The situation is different now, given the challenges of Covid and that the Boks won’t have ample time to prepare in a rejigged competition in Australia. That said, the Boks should have some momentum after beating the Lions and will know that their game plan – when executed correctly – is very hard to match.”