Three potential new caps, the reintroduction of overseas players into the Springbok squad and the fact that no team that has won the Tri-Nations, now known as the Rugby Championship, has gone on to win the World Cup are only some of the things Bok coach Rassie Erasmus will be trying to balance in this year’s shortened (three games instead of six) annual southern hemisphere competition featuring South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.
Former Springbok captain John Smit tried to explain why a Rugby Championship in a World Cup year can be quite a tightrope to negotiate:
What makes the Rugby Championship such a tricky competition to play in a World Cup year?
It’s a common problem the teams have had since the Tri-Nations and the Rugby Championship have existed.
Most teams approach it differently, but the way South Africa have approached it in the history of the competition is to take the path of not paying too much attention to it and rather using it to see what other [playing] options they have, and preserving their front line guys.
In 2007, I think I was one of the few guys who went on the overseas leg of the Tri-Nations and played in the World Cup final.
Do you think the fact that no team that has won the Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship has gone on to win the World Cup the same year is seen as some sort of jinx?
I didn’t know that, but, to be fair, it has a little barometer. Unless the All Blacks, the Boks, the Aussies and Argentina are sending their A teams for these one-off games, then there’s a bona fide winner.
That winner would be one of the favourites to win the World Cup because they are representing the southern hemisphere.
But, of the three games all these teams will play, I doubt you’ll see the same starting line-up twice in a row.
Given that it’s whittled down to just three games this year, why are teams reluctant to just pick their best team and build momentum going into a World Cup?
There’s a lot of risk involved in either being conservative and saving your players or not playing your best side, getting some bad results and breaking your momentum.
It’s quite tricky for a coach – you don’t want to get hammered and lose momentum and confidence.
But you also don’t want to put your players at unnecessary risk a couple of weeks before the World Cup.
For example, we sent a second-string side in 2007, while the other guys were sitting in a wine farm training, relaxing and basically getting fresh. But we were reasonably competitive against the bigger sides.
That worked because we didn’t win, but we gave them a run for their money and we all knew it was a second-string side.
But let’s say it goes wrong and you get hammered by 50 points – that’s not going to help a World Cup campaign.
What were the differences in approach in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cup campaigns you played in?
I don’t really remember much about 2003 because I made it into the team by the skin of my teeth because I had a shoulder injury in the build-up.
In 2007, we had a squad that was fresh, strong and the right age, and we played enough rugby because the management of the warm-up games was quite good.
In 2011, we were four years older so we couldn’t really overplay our hand in the beginning, so the first XV hardly played in any of those games.
We went in quite green because we needed to last for seven weeks that side, and we came close to losing against Wales and got better.
If you look back to the 1995 and 2007 World Cup wins, the Boks rode the momentum from provincial sides doing well in the Super 10 and Super 14 competitions. Where will that momentum come from now?
That’s where it’ll be different for this team and the 2007 team. This team will need a big scalp.
I honestly think they’ll want to win away against New Zealand and, even if that’s the only game they win, that’ll be a massive thing because they know they’re facing the All Blacks on neutral ground in their first game in the World Cup.
But they definitely need to get some kind of momentum from this championship.