In the 18 months since Rassie Erasmus took over as head coach, the Springboks have transformed from a laughing stock to genuine World Cup contenders.
Their swift turnaround has shaken the rugby world by storm and adds another exciting subplot to the sport’s global showpiece which gets under way in just five weeks time.
Winning the Rugby Championship last weekend – South Africa’s first trophy since the 2009 Tri-Nations – is confidence-boosting and a small prize for the path that Erasmus went on when he took the job last March.
Victories over Australia and Argentina, and a thrilling 16-16 draw against the All Blacks in recent weeks has the Springboks hitting form at the right time. And there is still plenty more to come.
Their ruthless thumping of the Pumas (46-13) last weekend in Salta to clinch the Rugby Championship followed New Zealand’s shock 47-26 defeat to Australia.
With the All Blacks stuttering‚ and England and Ireland off form in the Six Nations‚ South Africa has emerged as a surprise contender in what looks to be one of the most open tournaments in history.
The resurgent Boks will be out to show greater consistency when they begin their campaign against the All Blacks on September 21, a game that is likely to be the pool decider. After they face the world champions in Yokohama, Erasmus’s men will take on minnows Namibia, Italy and Canada.
The winner of the pool is likely to play Scotland, while the runner-up will take on Ireland for a place in the semi-finals.
Returning to the traditional Springbok style of play, the powerful South Africa forwards carry the ball with ferocity and a strong set-piece sets the platform to unleash their elusive backs at every opportunity.
Players like Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert, Duane Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx are all imperious with ball in hand and can make a critical difference against big opposition.
Behind the scrum, Faf du Kerk and Handre Pollard orchestrate proceedings from half back, with the searing pace of Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe to exploit out wide.
The team is far from the finished product, though, and a key theme throughout 2018 was the number of unforced errors that turned potentially winnable matches into defeats.
Among the seven defeats from 14 matches, four were by a margin of five points or less and all were games the team lost from winning positions.
But some extra weeks in camp has definitely ironed out errors and mental frailties, and they look more composed, intelligent and sharp in attack. Each player knows their job and respects the jersey.
On the defensive side, they tackle with conviction and don’t tire out towards the end of games like they did at times in 2018.
It feels like the embarrassing days of losing to Italy (20-18) or being thrashed 57-0 by the All Blacks were light years ago‚ and not a mere two years ago. That is testament to Erasmus and his coaching staff’s excellence in transforming the national side around.
The World Cup may be a step too far after only 18 months at the helm‚ but the giant leaps Erasmus and the Boks have taken have been stunning.
He has managed to build depth in most positions, capture the imagination of South African rugby public again, clinch their first piece of silverware in a decade and create an exciting and diverse gameplan.
Still, for any fan or player, it’s important to dream big, and the optimism around the team proves there is real belief they can be competing at the sharp end of the Rugby World Cup.
Union: South African Rugby Union
Head coach: Rassie Erasmus
Captain: Siya Kolisi
Most caps: Victor Matfield (127)
Top scorer: Percy Montgomery (893)
Top try scorer: Bryan Habana (67)
Star man: Handre Pollard. The Bulls star kicked 31 points to inspire the Boks to victory over Argentina last weekend. At 25, he is emerging as a real leader and has the ability to keep opponents constantly guessing with ball in hand as well as his accuracy from the boot.
Best finish: Winners (1995, 2007)
Fixtures: New Zealand (September 21), Namibia (September 28), Italy (October 4), Canada (October 8)
Ben Te’o has been overlooked for England’s 31-man World Cup squad in a shock omission by Eddie Jones.
Te’o has lost out to Piers Francis among the four centres bound for Japan 2019 despite being an ever-present under Jones when available.
The 32-year-old was involved in a scuffle with Mike Brown during a social event at the squad’s training camp in Treviso a fortnight ago.
Jones said over the weekend that Te’o was still in World Cup contention but the Australian has chosen to leave him out.
Former sevens specialist Ruaridh McConnochie continues a remarkable year by being present as the only uncapped player on the strength of a strong end to the season for Bath.
Flanker Lewis Ludlam, hooker Jack Singleton and scrum-half Willi Heinz made their debuts in Sunday’s rout of Wales and are also picked.
Jones has gambled by taking only two scrum-halves with Heinz providing cover for Ben Youngs, who is first choice in the position.
The decision to pick just five props means Harry Williams misses out, with Kyle Sinckler and Dan Cole travelling as the two tightheads.
Brad Shields will also miss out on the World Cup as he continues his rehabilitation from the foot injury incurred in Treviso.
The outlook on Shields left him with a race against time to board the plane with the rest of the squad on September 8 and Ludlam has been chosen in his place.
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Eddie Jones will announce his World Cup squad at lunchtime on Monday, well in advance of the official deadline in a move welcomed by the players.
Almost a month before World Rugby’s official deadline, Jones will unveil the 31 who will travel to Japan in the hope of emulating the success of Martin Johnson’s 2003 global champions.
Ben Te’o could be the biggest casualty after being overlooked for Sunday’s thumping victory over Wales as punishment for being involved in an altercation with Mike Brown during a recent team-bonding social event.
Te’o has been an ever-present under Jones and appeared a certainty for Japan 2019 until clashing with Brown in Treviso, Italy.
After Wales were swept aside at Twickenham, the players returned to their team hotel in west London knowing they would soon learn if they are to be given their shot at the sport’s greatest prize.
Those who are successful will travel to Bristol on Tuesday morning to begin preparations for the return fixture with Wales in Cardiff, while the others will be sent back to their clubs.
Jones’ decision to finalise his squad well before World Rugby’s cut-off point and before all his rivals except France is curious, but the break with convention has the approval of Ben Youngs.
Four years ago, under Stuart Lancaster, selection went down to the wire with the choice between rugby league convert Sam Burgess and the more established Luther Burrell for the final midfield slot disturbing squad harmony as England 2015 fast approached.
“I can only speak from previous experiences, but I believe that naming the squad early is definitely the right thing,” veteran scrum-half Ben Youngs said.
“The earlier you name it the more you can tighten up as a group and continue to work, so for me it makes perfect sense. It’s hugely beneficial for us as a squad to know that from past experiences.
“You want to know and the longer you leave it the more the elephant in the room appears. ‘What’s happening? Am I in or am I out? Who’s going?’.
Everyone knows the selection process has to happen. You respect it, you have to just wait and see what decisions are made. We are all men.
“People talking about it, people wondering, people questioning every time, ‘How did I train? Do you think that has helped? Has it impacted?’.
“Once you know the 31 you can crack on. If you leave it longer I don’t think it benefits the cohesion of the squad.
“I don’t think it benefits guys’ understanding of their roles and where they are at so for me I think it makes perfect sense that it is named early.
“But everyone knows the selection process has to happen. You respect it, you have to just wait and see what decisions are made. We are all men.”
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