Cape Town – Determinedly keep the selection/rotational focus on the bigger picture of the World Cup … or put a concerted, short-term focus on winning the Rugby Championship for the first time in its modern shape.
That is the reasonably pleasant dilemma facing Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus at this point.
One thing’s certain: following their spirited 16-16 share of the spoils with world champions New Zealand in Wellington on Saturday, they are within rare, tantalisingly striking distance of clinching the Championship silverware in Salta in a fortnight’s time.
Beat Argentina and there would be an excellent likelihood – definite, if they do it with a bonus point – of the Boks bagging the title in this year’s abbreviated competition.
By registering that dramatic, late try through fast-developing reserve scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, so coolly converted by experienced pivot Handre Pollard after the hooter in the Cake Tin, South Africa simultaneously shifted into pole position for the Champs spoils.
They advanced to a healthy, field-leading seven log points from two of their three matches, one clear of their greatest rivals in black, so a full house in Salta against the Pumas would take them to an unassailable 12, leaving what happens in the other final-round fixture between the Wallabies and All Blacks in Perth earlier on the same day immaterial.
Even a basic triumph, minus the “extra”, might well be enough to close the trophy deal in the Boks’ favour.
Yes, the 2019 competition has a decidedly secondary, devalued feel with the World Cup in Japan so close on its heels.
But wouldn’t it still be a seriously “nice to have” laurel … especially for a Springbok cause starved of really significant silverware in recent years?
Those scoffing at its gravitas this year could also point to the traditional curse, showing that the side winning the Rugby Championship or former Tri-Nations inevitably fails to go on to land the Webb Ellis Cup when the World Cup is held in the same year.
That has been the case in all of 1999 (Tri-Nations champs NZ, World Cup Australia), 2003 (Tri-Nations NZ, World Cup England), 2007 (Tri-Nations NZ, World Cup South Africa), 2011 (Tri-Nations Australia, World Cup NZ) and 2015 (Rugby Championship Australia, World Cup NZ).
But a feasible counter-argument might be that sporting bogeys are only there to be broken: if you are a genuinely ambitious and confident outfit, how about spiritedly targeting both?
Also in favour of having a crack at it against the Pumas with best possible resources, isn’t the time fast looming when Erasmus should begin settling in some earnest anyway on his most desirable A-team?
He has had two weekends of notable mixing and matching his combinations (to largely pleasing effect) with RWC needs strongly in mind, and while he may still be tempted to cocoon certain vital stalwarts of his squad for the tournament-ender in South America, a Bok side that is as near as possible to fullest strength is, arguably, just as likely now to run out in Salta.
South Africa have not won, after all, the major southern hemisphere competition since distant 2009 – so a full decade ago – as the Tri-Nations.
Lifting the Champs trophy in Argentina would be a tidy morale-booster for his charges ahead of RWC 2019; it seems well within their capacity at present to do so, too.
The Boks may have been well beaten 32-19 in last year’s Argentinean-hosted clash in the competition (in Mendoza) but it may be a good omen that in the last encounter staged in Salta (2017, when they were broadly a less compelling team than they are now) they earned a handsome 41-23 victory – with a bonus point.
This carrot somehow looks too tempting not to have a proper Springbok bite at, especially with the relative luxury of a fortnight to prepare for it and a mounting feeling that something truly good is brewing for the national side …
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