This is not the end: Springboks prove they are growing
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Cape Town - The Springboks won two out of three matches on their end-of-year tour, and while that stat is far from a bad one, you can't help but feel that this team deserved more.
After beating Wales in Cardiff and overcoming a confident Scotland side in Edinburgh, the Boks suffered a one-point defeat to England on Saturday in a match that was naturally their biggest one of the tour. Nonetheless, the Boks end 2021 as the No 1 team in the world.
Apart from the on-field action, there was also lots happening outside the field of play, with World Rugby finally giving their verdict on the charges they brought against SA director of rugby Rassie Erasmus just three days before the Boks' biggest Test of the tour.
Erasmus has been suspended with immediate effect from all rugby activities for two months and suspended from all matchday activities until 30 September 2022.
This comes after he was found guilty on all six charges brought by World Rugby for his video on Australian referee Nic Berry's calls in the first Test against the British & Irish Lions. The clash against England marked the first Test Erasmus missed as part of his suspension.
So, with end-of-year tour done and dusted, here are some points on the Boks' final assignments of the 2021 international season.
What they got right:
Ending Cardiff hoodoo
The Boks had all the reason to go into their clash at the Millennium Stadium with confidence after their victory over the All Blacks in their 101st meeting against their arch rivals. It had been eight years since the South Africans last celebrated in the Welsh capital, and in pulling off a 23-18 win against the hosts, they avoided a fifth straight defeat to the Dragons.
Administering the slow poison:
The first half against Wales was a poor one by Nienaber's team, but they fought back after the break to secure a positive result.
Against Scotland, it was pretty much the same, as they substituted a first half scattered with missed opportunities and some individual errors with a tidier, much more characteristic second half.
Sure, it's not like going out there and having to fight your way back into a game should ever be the goal, but the Boks again showed that they know how to wear teams down, and that's a win.
What they got wrong:
Not using Aphelele Fassi
Ahead of the clash against England, Aphelele Fassi and Sbu Nkosi were released to the Sharks.
Many have questioned the move, and understandably so.
The hugely talented back didn't feature on the end-of-year tour despite Damian Willemse having been ruled out with concussion in the first Test in the UK. His time with the Boks also meant that he missed out on United Rugby Championship duty. He played in just two of the Boks' 13 Tests this year.
Sure, the time spent with the national team will certainly help him understand the Bok way, but the 23-year-old has played desperately little rugby this year and, considering he is a player that is in Nienaber's plans for 2023, he could certainly have done with more on-field experience.
Given how good so many players in the green and gold have been on the tour (and this whole year, for that matter), singling out only a couple of players just wouldn't be fair.
There are those who deserve a special mention, though.
Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Steven Kitshoff and Lukhanyo Am have all been next level, with Etzebeth and Kolisi right up there.
They may have not made World Rugby's Player of the Year nominees' list, but they were absolutely outstanding.
Players who missed the dunk:
Willie le Roux:
While he wasn't half bad in his starting berth in Edinburgh as he brought some width on attack and cleared kicks well, his positional play put the Boks in some less-than-ideal situations at times, with the build-up to Stuart Hogg's try being one of those instances, while he also made some unforced errors. Against England, he had a few good high-ball takes and was decent on attack, but as the game went on, his performance dropped again.
Handre Pollard: His decline in form was evident against Wales, and against Scotland, he was again a bit shaky. His kicking off the tee was good in the opening half against England as he connected four-out-of-four, but those two missed three-pointers and conversion attempt in the second surely played its part in the Boks' one-point defeat. His kicking to touch was far from flawless and – as has been the case for a large part of the season – he again failed to control the game with authority.
Takeaways from the tour:
Erasmus’ absence is going to be felt
There have been quite a few Erasmus-in-camouflage-jokes, but the reality is that the Bok group will no doubt miss having Erasmus with them on game day next year. Kolisi and assistant coach Mzwandile Stick made it clear that Erasmus will be missed, and you don't have to be a tactician yourself to understand what an indescribable role he plays.
Frans Steyn has aged like a fine wine
How insane is his story?
The veteran was simply outstanding off the bench on the end-of-year tour, coming on in pressure moments and making a massive impact. He produced a man-ofthe-match performance after replacing Willemse in the first quarter against Wales, and that says a lot. 15 years of Bok rugby is something special in itself, and the same can be said about his contributions.
Boks could have been an otherworldly force
Nobody can say the Boks didn't achieve a helluva lot despite everything they've had to deal with over the last couple of years.
Zooming out of the end-of-year tour, the Boks went from no rugby in 20 months to winning eight and losing just five.
Now, considering these are the Boks we're talking about, those numbers may not sound very impressive, but add in there the fact that three of those defeats were courtesy of last-gasp penalties, resulting in defeats of two points or less, and it should bring some perspective.
Sure, Covid-19 has been tough on all teams, but the Boks have undoubtedly endured a particularly disruptive year.