THE clamour for tickets ahead of yesterdays sold-out Rugby Championship match between the All Blacks and the Springboks in Wellington has raised the question as to whether the age old rivalry between the teams has been ignited. (match was a draw 16 all )
Unquestionably it has thanks to the recent resurgence of the Springboks under Rassie Erasmus, but the rivalry born in 1921, when the two countries first met in Dunedin, is mostly rooted in the 75 years of the pre-1996 amateur era, and since then it has been seriously tested in a modern era that has seen New Zealand dominate world rugby.
But since 2016 that outright Kiwi dominance has waned a wee bit, as they would say in New Zealand parlance, as evidenced by their loss and a draw to the British and Irish Lions, two losses to Ireland, and one defeat apiece to Australia and South Africa.
And it is the closeness of the last three Test matches between the Boks and the All Blacks (going into this morning’s game) that have had South African hearts aflutter and New Zealanders welcoming back a genuine challenge to their dominance.
Last year, the teams perfectly cancelled each other out with a home and away aggregate score of 66-66 following the 34-32 Bok win in Wellington and the 32-20 All Blacks victory in Pretoria; while the previous encounter between the sides had seen the visiting Kiwis squeak home 25-24 in Cape Town.
In other words, there was one point separating the teams over their last three encounters before today’s match.
And the closeness of those three matches has been celebrated by rugby purists in both countries who have treasured the rivalry between the countries, but had wept at the alarming discrepancy between the sides in their previous three encounters that had seen the All Blacks ruthlessly win 41-13, 57-15 and 57-0.
But let’s digress from the Boks’ erratic (to put it euphemistically) performances against New Zealand in the professional era and examine just why these two countries have this exclusive and mutually sentimental need to beat each other more than the other nations.
Over three quarters of a century of amateur rugby, during which the two countries out rightly dominated world rugby, the Springboks had a superior record to the All Blacks.
In short, up until the first post-isolation Test between South Africa and New Zealand in 1992, the Springboks had won 20 Tests against the All Blacks, the latter had won 15, and two matches had been drawn.
The Boks had won a series in New Zealand (1937) but the All Blacks had never won a series on South African soil. As the rivalry progressed into the post World War Two era, the Boks defeated the All Blacks eight times in a row, and nine times out of 10, including the famous “All Blacked out” series of 1949 in South Africa in which the Kiwis had no answer in three Tests.
These days, can you imagine the Springboks winning nine out of 10 consecutive Tests against the All Blacks …?
Progressing into the post World War Two era, the Kiwis won a home series 2-1 in 1956; the Boks reciprocated with a 2-1 win at home in 1960; the All Blacks then won 3-1 in New Zealand in 1965 only to be overturned 3-1 in South Africa in 1970.
South Africa again won 3-1 in South Africa in 1976 only to lose 2-1 in New Zealand in 1981 in an incredibly dramatic tour that divided the country on the issue of “sports versus politics”. Whatever your stance, that tour strikingly entrenched the colourful relationship between the two rugby-mad countries.
In 1986, an unofficial All Blacks Cavaliers side (missing two conscientious objectors in John Kirwan and David Kirk), lost a series in South Africa that again had New Zealanders on the one hand demonising apartheid but with another hand tuning the TV remote into the rugby.
The rivalry thankfully enjoyed a bright new dawn in the post-apartheid Test of 1992 in which the Kiwis squeaked home at a reverberating Ellis Park, with the late James Small spilling a pass at the end of the game which should have seen him win the match for the Boks.
The Boks, and Small, then got it wonderfully right in the World Cup final at the same venue in 1995 after having lost a series in New Zealand in 1994.
And that brings us to quite possibly the most emotional celebrations the All Blacks have ever enjoyed, certainly in what I have seen in 25 year of covering international rugby. The scene was Loftus Versfeld in 1996 and the New Zealanders had snuck home against the Boks to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in a series they would win 2-1.
In the press box that day, I saw usually stony-faced Kiwi scribes weep with emotion, as did Sean Fitzpatrick and his men. The Loftus pitch was littered with All Blacks lying prone on their backs, staring to the heavens with delight.
That is what it meant to New Zealand to at last win a series in South Africa.
And, sadly for South Africa, that home series defeat marked a watershed in the great rivalry. From then on it has been mostly one-sided, with the New Zealand landslide held up only by the occasional Springbok obstacle.
In the 50 matches since the start of the professional era, New Zealand have won 36 Tests to South Africa’s 14, although in that time the Boks have won two World Cups to the two of the New Zealanders (they have a third from the 1989 amateur era).
Overall the New Zealanders have won 79 percent of the Tests they have played and the Springbok 65 percent. No other country has come close.
The problem for the age old rivalry is that in the professional era, the Boks have at best posted threats of a revival, with the occasional bang inevitably followed by a despairing whimper.
And the reason for this has been the abjectly poor administration by the South African Rugby Union. There has been a miserable failure to ensure there is continuity in the coaching structures of the Springboks, and consequently the players, which has meant that after every four (post World Cup) years a new coach has come in and started from scratch.
This contrasts starkly with a New Zealand model that has seen continuity in management of the team just about forever. Just one example of this is the fact that current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen began his apprenticeship for the top job under Graham Henry in 2004, taking over as head coach in 2012, and when he bows out after the World Cup later this year, his probable successor, Ian Foster, will have been an assistant for the last eight years.
This relentless continuity breeds seamless and sustained success, and it is why the All Blacks have been dominating a Springbok set-up that has a wholesale clearout after every World Cup, with the incoming coach largely starting from scratch.
Consider the following. After the 1999 World Cup which saw the Boks beat the All Blacks in a bronze medal play-off and then again in 2000 at Ellis Park before Nick Mallett was fired, the Boks then lost eight in a row to the All Blacks as first Harry Viljoen and then Rudolf Straeuli failed to rebuild the Boks in the post-Mallett era that had seen the Boks equal the world record for successive Test victories.
Straeuli had in fact blooded the core of players that under Jake White would record back-to-back victories over the All Blacks across 2004 and 2005, and then win again in 2006 in Rustenberg.
That same Bok team would win three in a row against the All Blacks in 2009. That was under coach Pieter de Villiers, but when Heyneke Meyer took over with a whole new squad and staff, the Boks lost six in a row to the All Blacks before a win in 2014.
Meyer ultimately presided over a Bok team that lost just 20-18 to the All Blacks in the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup, and then there was a colossal clear-out of players and coaching staff that meant incoming Allister Coetzee was fatally impaired, and those three 50-something reverses to the All Blacks in 2016 and 2017 were the result.
The Boks under Erasmus are now enjoying a resurgence against the Old Foe but the bottom line as far as challenging the All Blacks for a meaningful period of time is that Saru has to wake up and ensure that the Boks have long-term continuity instead of fatally having to reinvent themselves after each World Cup.
Mike Greenaway has the privilege of covering most of the Springboks’ victories over the All Blacks in the professional era. Here are his three favourites.
1998 New Zealand 3 South Africa 13 (Wellington)
This was the last ever Test match at the famous Athletic Park, a rickety old ground that was to make way for the Cake Tin that was nearing completion at the time of this match. The All Blacks wanted to bid a fitting farewell to a historic stadium but Gary Teichmann’s Boks were the party poopers. The unforgettable moment in that match was the match-winning try that saw flyhalf Henry Honiball deliver a brilliant inside pass to incoming blindside wing Pieter Rossouw.
2009 New Zealand 29 South Africa 32 (Hamilton)
The score-line flattered an All Blacks side that scored a late flurry of points after the visitors had smashed them for most of the game. The Boks had already beaten the Kiwis twice in South Africa and this victory secured them the Tri-Nations title. This match was memorable, too, for the three crowd-silencing penalties struck by fullback Francois Steyn from well within his half that locally earned him the nick name of “Jet boots”.
2006 South Africa 21 New Zealand 20 (Rustenburg) -His great mate Martin Myers was at that game
This was one the filthiest Tests between these countries of the modern era. The Boks under Jake White and John Smit were dangling by a thread after five successive losses. One more and there would have been a clear-out ahead of the 2007 Word Cup. But the “gatvol” Boks threw all caution to the wind and scrapped out a win that was secured by a last-minute penalty goal by Andre PretoriusA year later that same Bok team won the World Cup!
By Mike Greenaway
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