The answer to whether the Springboks are Rugby World Cup 2019 contenders remains a strong ‘yes’ after Saturday’s epic battle against the All Blacks in Yokohama.
But what is clear is that pre-tournament predictions that the Boks were the favourites to win the tournament have been overstated.
They are good, which we knew, but they far from a finished polished product and they have three pool games to buff-up their performances.
The 23-13 defeat in the 99th meeting between the two sides has also put the Springboks on a collision course with Ireland in the quarterfinals after Joe Schmidt’s team put Scotland away in emphatic fashion on Sunday.
Of course, both sides still have three pool games to play and nothing is guaranteed, but it’s difficult to see anything other than the Boks beating Namibia, Canada and Italy in their three remaining fixtures. Ditto Ireland against Japan, Russia and Samoa.
It’s a fixture neither side would’ve relished in a last-eight clash, but that’s the likely reality that faces South Africa and Ireland now.
The up side of the road the Boks are now on, if they can overcome Ireland (assuming that is the quarterfinal match), is that they are probably out of England and New Zealand’s paths until the final.
No side has ever won the RWC after losing a pool match. But no side has ever won the Rugby Championships and the RWC in the same year either. Those statistical foibles can’t last forever.
The Boks and the All Blacks have also never met in RWC pool play so something had to give.
“If you’re grouped with New Zealand in your pool, you have a good chance of not going through your pool undefeated and then you have to fight back and try to get to the final for the first time not being unbeaten,” coach Rassie Erasmus said. “We have to go that route.”
Losing to the All Blacks is not a rare occurrence for the Boks but after a strong build-up to the tournament, with near perfect preparation, the nature of the loss was disappointing.
Key players such as flyhalf Handré Pollard and No 8 Duane Vermeulen both coughed up high balls that ultimately led to New Zealand’s two tries in the space of three manic first half minutes.
Big players going missing at key moments is something no coach wants to see. Even though Vermeulen and Pollard redeemed themselves with strong second half performances the Boks were always playing catch-up having falling 17-3 behind in the blink of an eye.
“When they had that one opportunity to pounce in the first half they pounced and the scoreboard pressure we had was reversed, and we had to play a little bit more in our half,” Erasmus explained.
“They put us back in our own half and we struggled to get out of there and that showed their experience.
“People forget that as well as New Zealand attack, they defend as well so I don’t think they unraveled our defence. They scored from our mistakes but they’re a team that knows how to ramp up the pressure the moment they are ahead on the scoreboard.” So what to make of the biggest match the Boks have played since the RWC 2015 semi-final against the same opposition? In a word the Boks weren’t ruthless enough.
Statistically, South Africa appeared to do everything right. They edged possession and dominated territory. They ran for more metres than the All Blacks and forced an unusual 28 missed tackles from the Kiwis.
The Boks won more rucks and poached two All Black lineouts while retaining 100% of their own ball. They created chances and put the All Blacks under pressure. They never cracked them though.
That was partly due to a penalty count that was 11 to four against the Boks, which was a momentum killer. Erasmus was bordering on sarcastic when he congratulated New Zealand for their discipline.
Publicly he made all the right noises but privately he must have been seething about some calls.
As usual the All Blacks were at least half a metre offsides at most rucks while loosehead Joe Moody twice buckled under strain from opposite number Frans Malherbe in the scrums.
Moody’s elbow hit the ground on both occasions and the law is quite clear that it should have been a penalty to the Boks in that scenario. French referee Jerome Garces played on.
An obvious knock-on by scrumhalf Aaron Smith under his crossbar went unpunished while Pollard was called for a knock-on when the ball appeared to go backwards.
None of these things would matter in most matches, but in a contest where the margins were thinner than Kate Moss, they had a big impact.
The Boks though missed a staggering 35 tackles, 23 of those coming in the first half, and most of them between the 20th and 30th minutes when the All Blacks took control of the scoreboard even if they never had complete control of the match.
“We were five per cent off our game and we lost. That’s how it is‚” Pollard said afterwards.
“They had a five-minute spell in which they scored 14 points. That put us on the back foot. We can’t get negative now. We showed fight to get within four points to win the game. It is about small margins at the World Cup. We will keep on fighting.”
The Boks are wounded but still very much in this tournament. If they sharpen up their finishing and show the same ruthlessness as the All Blacks, there is no reason they won’t be Yokohama on November 2.