When Springbok rugby was going through a nasty trough in the early 2000s, the Boks’ old nemesis, Sean Fitzpatrick was interviewed by a Sunday newspaper and asked how he thought his old foe could fix themselves.
The former All Blacks captain, put on the spot and not wanting to provide to detailed a remedy, said: “Do what you do best. Do what you did for a century in which you gave us a lot of grief.”
It is fact that in 1992, when the Boks emerged groggily from isolation, they had beaten the All Blacks more often since 1921 than they had lost to them, and Fitzy’s succinct point resonated back then as it does today.
I don’t get it that the Springboks are almost made to feel guilty about playing to their strengths. When the Boks have tried to adopt the running game of the Wallabies and All Blacks they have invariably come a cropper.
Post the 2015 World Cup, when the Boks moved away from their direct way of playing under Allister Coetzee, they got themselves into a terrible mess, and the 50-point losses to the New Zealanders and the rock bottom losses to Italy and Argentina will forever stain the Springbok history book.
In picking up the pieces, Rassie Erasmus took the Boks back to the very basics of their game, he simplified it to bare bone and has drilled the players into being brilliant at the basics.
Now, on the mantlepiece at SA Rugby HQ is a World Cup, a Rugby Championship, and a series win over the British & Irish Lions.
And Saturday, for the second time in a fortnight, the Boks made a normally very good Argentina team — most of their players were in the side that beat the All Blacks last year — look very ordinary, losing first by 20 points and then by 19.
It was instructive that the Argentinians opted for spoiling tactics from the outset because they know the Boks were too strong for them upfront. It wasn’t that long ago that the Pumas were confident that they could beat the Boks every time they played, and with an attacking game.
But in these two games, any creativity they tried to engender was crushed. Put simply, the Pumas were overpowered.
Those criticising the Boks for their brutal approach need to bear in mind that the Boks entered the series against the Lions with zero momentum. After winning the World Cup in 2019, they lost nearly two years of rugby, a timespan in which they could have grown their game and perhaps added some attacking invention to their basic power play. But 19 months of inactivity meant they had to go back to those stripped-down basics that turned them from shameful losers into World Cup winners.
I found an article in England’s Daily Telegraph, in which the writer compared the Boks to an unglamorous soccer club, dripping in unintended envy. Headlined “Boks are the Millwall of rugby — no one likes them but they don’t care”, the writer eloquently said:
“They turn up, they do their thing, they get the win and on and on they go, down the generations,hitting hard, playing the percentages, uncaring of the clamour for them to be something different.”
But if you look at that Bok mantlepiece, why would they want to be different?