With the Rugby Championship kicking off next weekend, the competition and the rest of the rugby world desperately needs a strong South Africa, if only to act as counterweight to the all-conquering Kiwis, because 2016 turned into the worst year ever in the history of the Springboks.
The team won exactly four of their 12 matches and the losses included a 57-17 shellacking at the hands of the All Blacks in Durban and, pinch yourself, a scarcely believable loss to the Six Nations whipping boys Italy.
The coach Allister Coetzee was handed the Springbok reins in April of 2016 with South Africa placed third in World Rugby’s rankings. One year later the proud Bokke had slipped to seventh, two places below Scotland. France showed up in June licking their lips in anticipation of a rare series win on the road but left South Africa with their tails between their legs after losing all three Tests by an aggregate margin of 109-41.
South African-born former Scotland prop Matthew Proudfoot is the Bokke forwards coach and he explained how the South Africans hauled themselves off the canvas and landed a knock-out blow to a big, physical French team.
“I think that we had proper preparation time this year,” says the four-time Scotland international.
“In April of last year we weren’t even confirmed as coaches and we started our Test series in June so it was a late turnaround last year.
“I think decent preparation time and alignment with our franchises – we had three training camps already this season – gave us the opportunity to prepare and that was the turnaround.”
Proudfoot could have added several other reasons. The Springboks hired a former favourite Brendan Venter as defence coach, a role he already fulfils for Italy, and he tightened up a good few nuts and bolts.
The players have also changed, with some of the old guard being shown the door. Only two players started the Italy game in 2016 and the first French Test in June of this year in the same jersey, Tendai Mtwirawara and new skipper Warren Whiteley, although the “eightman” is currently injured and will miss next weekend’s start of the Rugby Championship when the Bokke welcome Argentina to Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
And the absent Whiteley is the clue to another important change in the Springboks. He is one of the many (Johannesburg) Lions, beaten Super Rugby finalists only recently, who make up the spine of this team and bring with them a more adventurous style of play.
South African “loosies” are usually the size of a house but Whiteley is listed as 15½ stones. He is a bantamweight amongst the big beasts in the Springboks’ pack but the leader has distribution skills and vision and the ability to do the right thing at the right time. He is a rugby playing breakaway, whisper it, in the New Zealand mould.
There is no question of the Bokke giving up on the biff and boff but, as Proudfoot explains, they are trying to find a balance in their play which has not always been evident.
“Allister [Coetzee] believes that South African rugby has a DNA and that is the philosophy he preaches,” says the former Scottish international. “At the end of the day, rugby is a contact sport and the contacts tend to be physical!
“Rugby has been played that way in South Africa but it’s about finding a blend. The modern game revolves more around space, not necessarily just running into each other and bashing each other which is a way that South African rugby has been stereotyped in the past ten years.
“But we are looking to blend physicality and skill in a particular way that Allister believes and June was pretty close to what he was looking for.
“He would like people to sit back and look at South Africa playing and know it was a South African team just from the way they play and I think if you look at the way we played in June I think that is pretty much how he wants to play the game.”
Proudfoot had two stints in Scotland, the first with Edinburgh when he won three caps, the second with Glasgow when injuries meant he was never properly conditioned…but he still added a fourth Test cap.
He recalls his time in Scotland with warmth and talks about how much he learned from the likes of Jim Telfer and Glasgow’s Hugh Campbell, who he rates amongst the best scrum coaches he has ever come across. His Scotland jersey hangs on the wall in his Cape Town house and he contacted the new Scotland coach over the summer.
“Gregor [Townsend] is a good mate of mine. We were room mates when we toured Australia (in 1998) so I sent him some messages of congratulations when they beat Australia. I always watch how the Scots play. I have fond memories from my time in Scotland and of course what I learned there.”
The inclusion of Whiteley – when fit – the athletic flanker Sila Kolise, the classy (Johannesburg) Lions’ stand-off Elton Jantjies and Jan Serfontain in the midfield means the Bokke scored 12 tries in the three-match series against France, seven of which fell to backs. Meanwhile the (B&I) Lions did South Africa a favour in the summer by reminding everyone that New Zealand are not invincible.
“The All Blacks didn’t lose the series so they still took something out of it, but the talk beforehand was the All Blacks would win 3-0 and to see what the Lions have done was really remarkable,” says Proudfoot.
“I don’t know if you can just follow that recipe. I think every country has its own process to follow to beat the All Blacks.
“We are a young side and we are just taking this Championship for what it is, a really tough Championship.
“We are growing in confidence. We just want some continuity and some performances back-to-back. New Zealand are leading the way and everyone is trying to catch them.”
The Springboks should be too strong for Argentina and the Wallabies but the only question on anyone’s mind is how close are they to the All Blacks?
“Oh, it’s a tough question,” Proudfoot replies. “Can I answer it in a few months time after we’ve played them?”