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No underdog motivation for Springboks

17 Oct 2023
Ralph Staniforth 17 Oct 2023
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  • The Springboks has a renowned history of resilience in the face of adversity
  • England have a tough ask on their hands
  • South Africa's ability to handle the pressure of being the favourites will be tested
South Africa rugby
South Africa need to be weary of England (Getty Images)

South Africa have been among the top rugby union nations since its readmission into sport ahead of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. As we are all aware, they won that tournament on home soil in their first-ever appearance.

But that isn’t as big a surprise as many may think because prior to being booted out of international sport, the Springboks were always among the top playing nations. And since that 1995 triumph, the men in green and gold have won the World Cup a further two times (2007 & 2019).

Yet, despite three World Cup victories, only matched by New Zealand, why does it always seem like South Africa thrives when the odds are stacked against them?

The phrase ‘you should never write off the Springboks’ is often bandied around when the team isn’t doing so well. Or when they face overwhelming odds, much like they did in 2019. True enough, South Africa generally gets up for the fight, they thrive in the face of adversity. A fight is where their heart is at, where they are most comfortable, and where they always seem to find a way to even out those odds.

As many players and coaches have said in the past, and will no doubt say in the future, the Springboks take you to some dark places on a rugby field. Those men that run out onto the field have often overcome far worse odds in their lives than what faces them on the rugby field, so they take you to the gutter, both mentally and physically, and that is where they find their peace.

The question then for the opposition and more specifically England this weekend is, can they go down to those depths, find themselves and work their way back out?

You don’t just beat a Springbok side by being better than them, you have to deal with much more than just pure rugby talent. Make no mistake, this South African side is not short on quality, they have that in abundance, and it's exactly what makes them so dangerous.

Yet, while all that has been said above is true, South Africa do often struggle when they are favourites. Perhaps it comes down to the psyche of the nation, the inherent need to fight against the odds, because that is what they have done for the last three decades.

That is perhaps the biggest concern for South Africa this weekend. There is no doubt that they are a superior unit to England, they play better rugby, they have better players, and they have better form. But that favourites tag has often hung very heavy around a Springbok neck.

Quarter-Final vs France

This past weekend we witnessed one of the great games of rugby union, at least in the last decade or two. South Africa and France went at it for 80 minutes and just a point separated them at the end.

Watching that game, perhaps easier the next day after the emotion has warned off, it would be hard to argue that France were the superior side, by far, particularly in the first half.

That South Africa went into the break a mere three points down was a minor miracle. They then had 14 men for the opening 10 minutes of the second half, which France completely dominated again. However, the hosts just couldn’t find a way past the Springboks in that period. 

Much of that was just sheer will and heart from South Africa, clinging to last-ditch tackles, forcing errors and crucial times through pure doggedness. That is where the Springboks like to be, right down at the bottom of the gutter when everyone thinks that dam wall is about to burst.

But the wall didn’t burst, and the substitutions made a huge impact. Suddenly France were on the back foot, a mere six points ahead after 60 minutes of domination. That is when the Springboks struck, making big plays at crucial times, forcing penalties, a try and then a 55m penalty by Handre Pollard.

France weren't beaten by the better side, the hosts simply lost the battle in the gutter, and when the Springboks allowed them back up, they were a tired side, energy was low, and error fell upon error.


England are not the same as France, they are not even remotely as good at this point in their evolution under Steve Borthwick. However, and I say it again, South Africa are often not the best favourites.

The Boks won’t have to defend for long periods like they did against France, they will have far more set pieces, and they may even have more possession and territory.

Perhaps this is where the difference is between this side and the ones that came before. Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus have built a side with plenty of depth, experience, and quality. The Springboks can now play in very different ways depending on the opposition, and one would imagine they have a unique plan for the English.

Crucially, South Africa will need to make a strong start, something they have struggled with in most big games recently. Allowing England to build a lead of anything more than a score could be dangerous.

I say this because yes, we all expect the Springboks to be capable of coming back from more than a score down, but the pressure in the semi-final will be immense. And the more they allow England to pull away, the more England will believe.

No one may have expected England to be here at this stage, but that does not mean they are short on quality. Many of their players are in the world-class bracket and cannot be taken lightly, something I doubt South Africa would do. They know all about being written off and then causing a major shock.

Much of this semi-final reminds me of 2019 when these sides met in the final. England had just beaten New Zealand in the semi-final with an absolute masterclass performance while South Africa scraped past Wales in the other semi, a game many have forgotten, or wish they could forget.

That entire week England were billed as champions-elect while South Africa were told to be proud of picking up silver. On the day, the Springboks turned it on, outplaying England from the first whistle to win 32-12. The green and gold will do well to remember that build-up week and not make the same mistakes.

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