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Bok growth is fact, not perception

At an early morning media briefing in Buenos Aires in late 2005, the then Springbok coach Jake White made a quip that I was to remind him about two years later in Paris as his team were about to face Argentina in the semifinal of the World Cup.

The day before had been a tough one at the office for White’s Boks – that was the game perhaps best remembered for Jean de Villiers pushing a Pumas player into a moat surrounding the field – but his men had eventually pulled through and White was understandably relieved.

“The one thing I am pleased about,” joked White, “is that at least I won’t be remembered as the first Springbok coach to have lost to Argentina.”

He wouldn’t have been expecting to play the Pumas at the 2007 World Cup at that point as the Boks weren’t drawn to play them and no-one would have expected Argentina to get to the semifinal. The Boks easily dealt with Argentina in that game, so White wasn’t the first Bok coach to lose to the Pumas. Heyneke Meyer was.

But I gave some thought to White’s chirp at the start of the most recent clash between the Boks and Pumas in Salta. I wasn’t there this time and covered the game off television instead so was able to watch the in-studio build-up.

What got me thinking about White was when Nick Mallett struggled to conceal his frustration at a tweet that suggested if the Boks lost in Salta they’d be going back to square one and would have gained nothing from the season so far.

I shared Mallett’s scarcely concealed irritation. That the Boks have grown immeasurably since last year should be obvious. They’re a coached and well organised team now. Last year they weren’t.

The doom merchants keep reminding me that they haven’t played anyone yet, meaning that they haven’t played a top three nation yet, but with all due respect to Italy, last year they didn’t need to play against anyone to lose.

Until the Salta game there was the slight danger though that the good work could be undone as the message behind White’s 2005 quip still holds true – the Boks are still expected to beat Argentina, and any loss to them would be seen as a step backwards.

I well remember having to deal with a highly emotional call from someone who was purported to be a fellow journalist after Meyer’s team lost to the Pumas in 2015.

When I tried to argue that Meyer was putting all his eggs in the World Cup basket, and had put his team through a taxing conditioning week in the build-up to the Durban test, all that kept coming back at me was “We should NEVER lose to Argentina”. That of course was before the World Cup and Japan.

That statement also came before Argentina’s excellent performance at that World Cup where, like 2007, they made the semifinals. But the fact probably remains – a defeat to Argentina, no matter where it is, will probably lead to an emotional reaction, and there was still a possibility of the public perception turning against the Boks if they came unstuck in Salta.

The subject of how long it takes for the sporting public as a whole to forgive and forget previous failures again came into my mind on the Sunday afternoon after the Salta game. After Liverpool beat Arsenal 4-0 in the round ball game, one of the television commentators said of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, “After all the questions raised last season, this Arsenal team was always one big defeat away from a crisis”.

I am not agreeing with the tweet that Mallett was disagreeing with, because the logic was patently flawed, but from an emotive viewpoint, the Boks might have been one defeat away from what we could call a perceived crisis. Meaning that some sections of the media and the public might have perceived it as such.

Mallett should know all about how fickle and demanding public sentiment can be. When his Bok team lost to England at Twickenham in November 1998, it was his first defeat as a Bok coach in 17 starts. Yet he was told by one of my journalist colleagues that he could expect to be roasted when he got home. And to an extent, he was.

After winning so well in a city where they struggled previously, any lingering question marks over the dramatic strides made by the Boks should now have finally been removed.

Five consecutive wins by big margins tells the story of a team that is well managed, well led and has a unified sense of purpose. It would be naïve to expect the success to continue unabated if you consider the opposition that lies in wait for them on the Australasian leg and, if you look at the history books, there shouldn’t be an expectation of a 100 percent return.

Provided there isn’t a repeat of the Kings Park fiasco last October and they get thrashed by 50 points, which I can’t see happening to this Bok team, the improvement graph should remain steady. They’ve now moved into territory where their growth as a team, which is demonstrated by their rise up the world rankings since June, is fact rather than perception. It was already, but now it should be clear.

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