Springboks can reign supreme if 2007 vintage remains potent

Largely unchanged holders have fine World Cup record and are confident of adding to their two crowns, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

The thing most people remember about the last few hours of the 1995 World Cup in Johannesburg is not Jonah Lomu being gang-tackled or Joel Stransky dropping the winning goal in the second period of extra time: it is the on-field appearance of Nelson Mandela, who had donned a South African shirt for the occasion – an act of solidarity with Francois Pienaar's team and, at the same time, a thunderous insistence that rugby could never again be the game of the white man. What they do not recall, largely through choice, are the words of Louis Luyt, that boorish and blustering arch-grandee of all things Springbok.

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"There were no true world champions in 1987 and 1991 because we were not there," he pronounced at the after-match banquet, infuriating the beaten New Zealanders to such a degree that all of them walked out – some of them after approaching the top table with the express intention of sticking one on the South African Rugby Football Union president by way of a leaving present. It was, as other senior Springbok figures acknowledged, a crass thing to say at a moment of such profound sensitivity. The Boks had indeed missed the first two tournaments. Why? Because with apartheid still in place in '87 and in only the early stages of dismantlement four years later, no one with a sliver of conscience wanted to touch them with a bargepole, let alone ruck and maul with them.

Yet as things have unfolded on the global stage, it is perfectly possible to argue that South African rugby is indeed the best when it comes to World Cup competition. Two victories in four attempts, together with a podium finish in 1999? It is some record. Luyt's "tired and emotional" outburst – the description offered at the time by the urbane Springbok manager and former national captain Morne du Plessis – was, and remains, hard to forgive, but there are many oval-ball aficionados up there on the high veld who believe to this day that he was making a semi-reasonable point, albeit in a wholly unreasonable way.

A simple arithmetical formula shows that Australia, two-time winners of the tournament, and New Zealand, desperately seeking a second title to go with the one they claimed on home soil 24 years ago, are the best-performing countries at World Cups. England, champions in 2003, are close behind: only they and the Wallabies have featured in three finals. Then come France, masters of the unexpected, and then, two tournaments light on everyone else...the Boks. If we take the average of their performance across four tournaments and apply it across six, they are well ahead of the Antipodeans.

By common consent, they were not the best side in 1995. In pulling together such electrifying attacking talents as Lomu, Jeff Wilson, Andrew Mehrtens and Josh Kronfeld, the All Blacks changed the way rugby was played: had the tournament been staged a year later, when that silver-ferned vintage had matured and the great Michael Jones had recovered from injury to reclaim his place in the back row, they would surely have triumphed.

Fast-forward to the last tournament in 2007, however, and there was no doubting the Bokke supremacy. Perhaps only three World Cup-winning sides in history - the All Blacks of '87, the Wallabies of '99 and Martin Johnson's red-rose outfit of '03 – would have lived with them, and of those, England were already in decline come the night of their victory in Sydney.

Perhaps significantly, no fewer than 18 members of the South African squad in France four years ago will be involved again this month: indeed, the only members of the team that started the '07 final against England not to be found among the current 30-man party are the full-back Percy Montgomery, the loose-head prop Os du Randt and the flanker Juan Smith. And while Montgomery and Du Randt retired after that tournament, Smith would certainly have held his place but for injury.

England, on the other hand, have changed utterly. Of the starting XV that took the field at Stade de France, seven – Jason Robinson, Mike Catt, Andy Gomarsall, Mark Regan, Phil Vickery, Ben Kay and Martin Corry – have called it a day, most of them long ago. Paul Sackey is out of sight in Paris and pretty much out of mind, while Mathew Tait is attempting a career re-launch at Leicester. That leaves six survivors: the wing Mark Cueto, the prop Andrew Sheridan, the lock Simon Shaw, the flanker Lewis Moody, the No 8 Nick Easter and, last but by no means least, the housewives' favourite. Yes, Jonny Wilkinson is still in the mix, smiling softly and talking about Schrödinger's cat.

Only three players – the great Wallaby lock John Eales, the marvellous Australian centre Tim Horan and the aforementioned Du Randt, pre-eminent among props of the loose-head variety – have started and won two World Cup finals. Wilkinson could join that very select list when things come to a head in Auckland next month, as could the hooker Steve Thompson, back in an England shirt (just about) after a brief, bulk-expanding retirement.

But there are a dozen Springboks who fancy their chances rather more. And if they turn out to be the ones who find a way of beating the All Blacks on New Zealand soil, a certain Dr Luyt will no doubt have something to say on the subject.

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