One of the most meaningful things I ever got was a letter after my first Test in New Zealand as Springbok coach. Doug Howlett scored in the 86th minute to give the All Blacks a 23-21 win in Christchurch in 2004.
When I woke up the next morning, there was a letter under my door from Andre Joubert, who was in New Zealand on business and had been staying in the same hotel as the team.
The letter said: “I just want to say congratulations! It’s great to see the Boks are back!”
I’ve still got that handwritten letter from a legend of the 1995 Rugby World Cup champions. Even though we’d lost the Test, Andre understood what it meant to have run the All Blacks so close and, even though the result didn’t go our way at Loftus Versfeld this year, people recognise that the Boks are on that level again.
Six months ago, the New Zealand media would never have questioned the All Blacks, but after what happened in Wellington and Pretoria I read an article where they were talking about the World Cup opener against South Africa being “like war” because whoever loses that match will probably have to face Ireland in the quarter-finals.
That reaction confirms that the Boks are legit. We might not have all the stats that people would like to see, but it’s obvious that South Africa has turned a corner, in their performances and psychologically, and that will make other teams very wary of the Boks.
The challenge on the November tour will be to beat England in England, but don’t fall into the trap of moving the goalposts. When we weren’t winning, talk was that we’d take it any way we could get it, and now that the Boks have won, some pundits are saying we need to get straight A’s on the end-of-year tour.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but I agree with the New Zealand and English media when they say the Boks are the real deal. Don’t underestimate the impact that positive media has on our players, and what it does to our rivals who have to read that.
It’s easy to say I think the Boks still have to do this or that, but the truth is that the All Blacks would have a real problem if Aaron Smith got injured, yet they’re credited with having the best rugby systems in the world and they’ve had the same coach for eight years.
We all know what it means to play against Smith and he means a lot to the All Blacks who play with him. No one can deny there’s a massive void between Smith and the next scrumhalf in the pecking order, and the same goes for Ireland – who is behind Johnny Sexton? People should remember that before they criticize the drop-off between some of the Boks’ current starters and the next in line.
I think Rassie has ticked enough boxes in the last six months to warrant what some of the most respected rugby people are now saying about the Boks and you have to give him credit for that.
Everyone understands that the 2019 RWC opener against New Zealand is almost like a knockout game. But what’s changed over the past six months is that the showdown is now looking like a genuine contest – the result is no longer a foregone conclusion. And what’s nice is that view isn’t coming from within the Bok camp, outside voices are saying it about South Africa.
Whether people like it or not, it’s not debateable – the jewel in the rugby crown is the World Cup. The champions get four years’ bragging rights and one thing Rassie has continually said is that his plan is to make sure the team is ready for 2019.
He knows the first game against New Zealand is the one he has to be ready for and, if you measure what he’s done this year, there’s enough there to say the Boks are on track.