CAPE TOWN – Wales legend Sam Warburton basically disregarding South Africa as World Cup contenders can be seen as another indication of the Springboks having lost their aura. But is it really a bad thing?
Wales capped a stunning Six Nations campaign with grand slam success when they beat defending champions Ireland 25-7 in Cardiff at the weekend.
The victory extended the men in red’s hot winning streak to 14 consecutive wins. And it’s exactly that form under the guidance of three-time grand slam-winning Kiwi Warren Gatland, combined with the a dip in form of some of the traditional southern hemisphere heavyweights, that has the former Wales skipper so confidently optimistic… optimistic enough to believe that the All Blacks will present the only real threat to Wales on rugby’s biggest stage in Japan.
“If somebody else beat New Zealand and knocked them out of the tournament, as a Welsh fan you would be thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is on,’ Warburton wrote in a column in the Sunday Times.
“Basically New Zealand are the only team I would really worry about Wales playing. If it was anyone else at the moment I would back Wales.
“Wales deserved to win this and it sets them up so nicely. I don’t want to get too excited but, because South Africa and Australia are not the sides they once were, Wales have a real chance in the World Cup.”
Aside from the All Blacks being, well, the All Blacks, the fact that Wales haven’t beaten them since 1953 will have Warburton hoping even harder that the highly unlikely happens – the All Blacks get knocked out before Wales get tested against them.
The fact that Wales won the grand slam in a World Cup year will undoubtedly also have done something for Warburton – and the team’s – confidence, especially seeing as the last team to achieve that feat was England in 2003 – their World Cup-winning year.
So, what do Warburton’s thoughts mean for South African rugby?
Nothing bad, that is.
In fact, if it’s at all indicative of how the rest of the rugby world feels about the Boks’ chances, it’s a good thing.
The Bok class of 2019 won’t go into the World Cup as favourites, thanks to a couple of struggling seasons during which the South Africans hit very low lows. And for a team still trying to get back to 100%, the added pressure that would come with sky-high World Cup expectations wouldn’t do them any good.
Ideally, the Boks would go into the World Cup looking to build on and continue good form. And that comes with pressure.
Don’t get me wrong, in a country like SA, there will always be expectation to perform.
But this Bok group, one that has shown some promising signs along their road to recovery, will look to continue improving in their two games ahead of the World Cup. They’ll hunt improvement and results, but given the recent past, nothing will be seen as a given. And that’s the key – they’ll look to improve. Unlike a team like Wales, who have achieved great success in the build-up to the event, and because of that, the pressure will be on.
So, while Warburton has some reason to be confident, he should remember what happened after Wales last won the grand slam in 2012 (they went to Australia and lost all three of their Tests before going on an eight-game losing streak).
And just like their last major success didn’t necessarily lead to major positives, the Boks’ struggles won’t necessarily lead to Japan disappointment.
If it does go the other way, with the Boks lifting the Webb Ellis Cup later this year, that success will be even sweeter seeing as they “aren’t the side they once were”.