This time last year, the Springboks had suffered what would be the first of many humiliating defeats with their loss at home to Ireland.
Said loss, thanks in no small part to turgid rugby that was an insult to the game, was followed by another loss to Argentina, a record defeat to New Zealand at home and a first defeat to Italy.
This year’s international season has begun with wins against France, with the Boks jumping to a 2-0 lead in the three-test series that concluded in Johannesburg yesterday. The scores in the first two matches were 37-14 and 37-15, yet there’s a faint whiff of dissatisfaction in the air.
Talk after the first test was that the French team was weakened as they couldn’t field many of the players who played in the Top 14 final, which was held a week before the Loftus Versfeld opener. After the visitors brought eight reinforcements to their team for the second game and suffered the same fate, the comment graduated to “this is a bad French team”.
Northern hemisphere teams – particularly France – have a tendency to sleepwalk through their end-of-season tours. But, given that Ireland was in a similar situation last year and still gave the Boks the hurry-up in that series, surely the Boks’ results must be accepted as a definite improvement.
Yet a fair bit of nitpicking – about who deserves the most credit for the promising start, who should be in the starting line-up instead of the current guys and how the Boks have defended too much – has been the order of the day.
Why should we obsess about Handrè Pollard and Frans Steyn when Elton Jantjies and Jan Serfontein are playing well? And haven’t most of the successful Bok teams since readmission defended more than they have attacked?
Scrambling to apportion credit, former Springbok coach Jake White wrote a column highlighting how defence and exits consultant Brendan Venter and new captain Warren Whiteley were responsible for the turnaround in the team’s fortunes.
To be fair to White, when you read the rest of the missive, it generally marks the improvement of the team. However, the angle took the credit away from the often maligned head coach, Allister Coetzee.
The irony of this point of view is that it ranks right up there with the silly notion that Eddie Jones was responsible for the Boks winning the World Cup in 2007. Jones added a missing part to the Boks, but White had the foresight to rope him in.
It took another column, this time by Venter – a thoroughly decent man for all his bluntness – to credit Coetzee for putting structures in place and preventing the growing narrative that Coetzee is a bystander in what appears to be a Bok revival.
I also managed to stupidly get involved in an argument on social media with someone claiming that stats proved that last week’s man of the match, Siya Kolisi, was great with ball in hand but average in every other aspect of the game.
In this gridiron age of “there’s a stat for that”, it appears that every detractor will always be able to sneer at whatever a team does simply because there will always be a statistic that invalidates what they have achieved.
Readily available statistics have created “expert supporters” who no longer watch games to see how they unfold, but do it to see if their predictions will be proven right. When things don’t go their way, the same stats are used to rail against why they weren’t proven right.
In a way, that’s part of what this criticism for criticism’s sake against the Boks is about. To be sure, the Boks are nowhere near the finished article, and the path they have taken will be tested, much like the Proteas had their noses bloodied in the Champions Trophy.
But would it be too much to give them room while they grow?
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