Cape Town - NOW that the dust has settling on the Springboks’ extraordinary year, the apt question is just how good would this team have been if they had not lost nearly two years of inactivity to the Covid-19 pandemic?
Having been locked down for 20 months, they went from a standing start to playing 13 Tests in 20 weeks, winning eight and losing five, with three of the defeats coming from heart-breaking last-gasp penalties.
In those games, the Boks were leading in the 78th minute only to lose at the death for single-point defeats.
If the Springboks had resumed in 2020 after their World Cup victory, they would have been a dozen Tests down the line come 2021, and I am certain those narrow defeats would instead have been conclusive victories because the Boks would have grown significantly over that playing time.
Yes, it is true that it is a global pandemic but all of the Boks’ adversaries in 2020 played far more rugby – the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup were played in Europe, while a Rugby Championship was held without the Boks.
The Boks had little choice but to keep it simple and stick to their conservative game plan, especially in the series against the British & Irish Lions, and the criticism of their playing style was unfair given that they had just one match to warm up before the series – against Georgia – after not have played since November 2019.
Overall, the Boks have done themselves and South Africa extremely proud and they will enter 2022 with confidence.
The Boks also came in for stick for not introducing fresh talent, but to be fair, they were on an emergency footing from June when they convened in Bloemfontein for the first time since November 2019, so it was hardly the time for experimentation.
Coach Jacques Nienaber’s tried and tested mostly did not fail him, and a number of individuals have finished the year with reputations considerably enhanced.
Against England at Twickenham on Saturday there were colossal performances by Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen,
Malcolm Marx, Makazole Mapimpi, Damien de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, with all of them crowning superb seasons for South Africa.
Kolisi’s growth as a player and captain adds a new chapter to his fairytale story, notably because of how he responded to the challenge of what promised to be a very tough year for the Boks.
Kolisi went into the international season in July with valid questions over his form after he had been decidedly iffy for the Stormers in only a handful of games late last year – he did have injury problems – and when he arrived at the Sharks in the new year, he needed to undergo a conditioning programme.
Many felt he did not deserve a starting place in the team for the first Test against the Lions, but by the end of the series he had been one of the Boks’ best players and that form continued for the rest of the season.
The weekend’s season finale against England was a microcosm of the season in that it highlighted the strengths of the Boks – a muscular pack backed up by a nuclear “bomb squad” – and some weaknesses, which include a struggling Willie le Roux at fullback and inconsistent goal-kicking.
We should also remember that the Boks played almost all of the year without one of their best players, Pieter-Steph du Toit, after the 2019 World Player of the Year was injured against the touring Lions.
In June next year, Wales arrive for a three-Test series and the Boks can begin some genuine evolution as the rugby season normalises.