The Rugby World Cup has got a fair bit tougher for South Africa, though.
First, there’s no room for error. After an opening loss to New Zealand, South Africa cannot slip up in its remaining Pool B games against Namibia, on Saturday, and then Italy and Canada if it wants to be sure of a place in the quarterfinals.
And South Africa might retain pool-stage nerves following its shocking loss to Japan — rated the greatest upset in Rugby World Cup history — four years ago. Almost everywhere the squad goes at the 2019 World Cup in Japan there will be reminders of that stunning result.
Also, if all goes to form, the Boks will face an impressive-looking Ireland team in the quarterfinals this year. The Irish were ranked No. 1 at the start of the tournament and downed Scotland convincingly 27-3 in Pool A the day after South Africa lost 23-13 to the defending champion All Blacks. The Springboks do not have a good recent record against Ireland, losing 38-3 in Dublin at the end of 2017, South Africa’s heaviest defeat to Ireland ever.
Finally, there’s the small matter of history: South Africa will have to do what no other team has done if it wants to win the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and that’s bounce back from a loss in the pool stage to win the title.
“So, we have to go that route now,” Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said. Losing to New Zealand “definitely puts some pressure on us,” he added.
But de Jager and the Springboks take heart from their progress in 2019, he said, when the Boks were unbeaten all season until the World Cup — including a 16-16 draw in New Zealand — and wrestled the southern hemisphere title away from the All Blacks.
The season, even if it was curtailed for the World Cup, was South Africa’s best for probably a decade.
“We’ve been doing well the whole year, we’ve been very consistent,” de Jager said. “One game (the loss to New Zealand at the World Cup), where the opposition were also good and you lost, it doesn’t make you all of a sudden panic about anything.
“I don’t think the scoreboard reflects how tight the game really was. We clawed our way back to 17-13 with 20 minutes to go. Just one or two big moments, they handled better than us on the day.”
A possible quarterfinal meeting with Ireland in Tokyo on Oct. 20 will be intriguing for the Boks coach. Erasmus worked for Irish club Munster before moving back home to take the South Africa job and knows many of the Ireland players well.
“But they know us as well so I’m not sure who would have the advantage in that match,” Erasmus said. “We’ve got an important game against Italy along the way. I know we’ve got Canada and Namibia, also, but the Italy game is a game (where) in the last two years, we’ve had a slippery game.
“So, I must just mention them before we start talking about quarter-finals.”
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