Tarnished South African Gold Offers Wales A Chance To Finally Cash In

Two of the old southern giants – Australia and New Zealand – have been and gone through Cardiff this month. Wales lost both Tests, but South Africa presents a significant opportunity. Geraint Powell offers a guide as to why a victory over the Springboks these days – although not to be sniffed at – is almost as devalued as their currency.

 

My previous reviews of the landscape and the visitors ahead of the Wallabies (https://www.dai-sport.com/resurgent-wallabies-nous-make-unlucky-13-warren-gatland/) and the All Blacks (https://www.dai-sport.com/blacks-tired-jaded-weakened-dont-bet-house-red/) Test matches were each followed by the historically and statistically probable Welsh defeats.

If last Saturday saw the remaining sole superpower of global rugby show why they are still the best – the All Blacks beating Wales without three-quarters of their first choice pack and reminding us all how they clinically execute the basic skills at a high tempo for 80 minutes – this Saturday sees the visit of the other historic superpower of rugby union, the fallen giants of South Africa.

The Springboks entered the professional era in 1995 without ever having lost to Wales.  They had played eight times and only failed to achieve a clean sweep through a solitary draw in the Cardiff mud of January 1970.

The figures would have been worse, for Wales, but for the Springboks’ subsequent sporting isolation. Could anybody seriously have seen Wales beating a back division in their prime which comprised Naas Botha, Danie Gerber, the Du Plessis brothers, Johan Heunis and Jaco Reinach?

Before Graham Mourie’s 1978 All Blacks finally achieved the first New Zealand “Grand Slam” tour of the home unions, albeit not without some controversy, the Springboks had already achieved the feat four times in 1912-13, 1931-32, 1951-52 and 1960-61.

Perhaps of greater significance, Flip Nel’s Springboks went out to New Zealand in 1937 and won a Test series with a team that included legends of the game such as Danie Craven and Boy Louw.

The British Lions would have to wait until 1971 and the Wallabies – if you ignore the 1949 oddity, when the main All Blacks team was touring South Africa – would have to wait until 1986.

New Zealand had to wait until 1996, the professional era, to finally achieve a Test series win in South Africa.  You only had to see the reaction of the All Blacks players after the final whistle in Pretoria to witness what it meant to them and to New Zealand rugby.

But the professional era, soon after Francois Pienaar lifted the World Cup on home soil in Johannesburg in 1995, with Nelson Mandela famously supporting, has subsequently provided a veritable storm of challenges for the Springboks.

Francois Pienaar receives the World Cup from Nelson Mandela in 1995. Pic: Getty Images.

Unlike New Zealand, to the frustration of former coach Heyneke Meyer in particular, there is no strong centre with control over everything in South Africa.  It was a  product of the apartheid years, when the old union was gradually unable to deliver regular tourists and provincial power grew.  Provincial unions, particularly Louis Luyt’s Transvaal, effectively arranged boycott-busting rebel tours.

The South African currency suffered by the increasing isolation of the 1980s, particularly following PW Botha’s notorious Rubicon speech in 1985, and then by “Africanisation”.  The 1.49 Rand to the Pound of this day in November 1977, which was still only 5.65 Rand to the Pound when professionalism came in August 1995, today stands at 18.51 Rand to the Pound.

And, of course, the Springboks are hampered by racial transformation.  Instead of identifying young talent and giving it equality of opportunity at the best rugby schools, we have the absurdity of racial quotas at international sporting level.

Former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains controversially predicted the end of the Springboks as one of rugby’s superpowers because of this imposition on current coach Allister Coetzee and his forecast is gradually coming true.

So, this combination of factors has seen hundreds of South African players go into exile and earn a Euro, Sterling or Yen living.  Some of France’s Top 14 clubs have become particularly associated with South African player imports, but there are South African exiles everywhere.

When South Africa lost 18-20 to New Zealand in the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, it certainly felt like the end of the old order.  By 2019 the Springboks will be more about what they politically represent than their rugby ability.  There was a feeling that World Rugby wanted to try and help revive South African rugby through hosting the 2023 World Cup, but again hard currency talked.

South African rugby is currently caught in several “No Man’s Lands”.  Between the more fluid style of the Lions region in Super Rugby, and the more traditional style played by other Super Rugby regions.  Between the power rugby of the Afrikaner mind set, and the looser style of some of the emerging non-Afrikaner players.

Elton Jantjies. Pic: Getty Images.

Their form has been patchy throughout 2017.  A 3-0 home series win over a typically weak French June touring party, followed in the Rugby Championship by home and away wins over Argentina and draws with Australia, could not overshadow a record and humiliating 0-57 defeat to the All Blacks in Albany.  Some pride was restored in the return fixture in Cape Town, but it was still a defeat.

Their end-of-year tour began with a 38-3 drubbing by Ireland in Dublin, followed by an 18-17 win over France in Paris and a comfortable 35-6 win over Italy in Padua.  Whilst Handré Pollard has returned to the 10 jersey since Dublin, and provided a steadying influence, the story of this tour and a depressing sign of the times has been Jan Serfontein not being selected so that he can settle in and cement his club place at Montpellier in France!

Despite so many South Africans plying their trade overseas, only three were initially selected for this November’s squad.  Only Elton Jantjies will be available on Saturday, with Francois Louw, Franco Mostert and (the subsequently called-up) Duane Vermeulen returning to their clubs.

The fourth autumn international is a controversial subject in Welsh rugby.

Wales will also be without a number of exiled players, although Taulupe Faletau looks like he will be made available by Bath.  In accordance with his playing contract, but contrary to English club policy.

For some, the match is an uncomfortable reminder of the complete primacy of Test rugby in Wales and the huge commercial gap between our earning Test rugby and our cross-subsidised version of regional rugby.  For others, it is more an irritant to Pro14 and EPCR campaigns.  But it helps pay the bills, through a 60,000-plus crowd and a huge TV audience.

This is a pivotal match for the Welsh campaign, the never having won in the amateur era and the 13-96 humiliation at Pretoria in 1998 having been transformed into 2014 and 2016 wins in Cardiff.

Lose this one and the dissatisfaction in some quarters over the style and results of the Welsh Test team in recent seasons will certainly not abate ahead of the 2018 Six Nations.

History tells us that Wales versus South Africa was once basically a mis-match, but recent history tells us that this has changed and Wales have every chance of winning this one on home soil.

 

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