Barring a late twist (not impossible in such a currently volatile world?) the Springboks will now skip the entire 2020 calendar year when it comes to Test activity.
Confirmation on Friday that they will sit out the Rugby Championship leaves an increasing risk that Jacques Nienaber’s first exposure as Bok head coach will be the red-letter first Test against the British and Irish Lions at FNB Stadium on 24 July next year.
In that scenario, the national team would not have played since the 2019 World Cup final against England on 2 November – a gap period of just under 21 months.
Even if they are able to arrange a “warm-up” Test or two before the Lions series, which seems at least a reasonable prospect, some 20 months of dormancy are likely to have taken place for the Boks.
That is the sort of experience in idleness last tasted in a bigger period between September 1989 and August 1992 (so including the full calendar years of both 1990 and 1991).
It was at least partly explainable, at the time, to the embers of apartheid in the country: indeed, the arrangement of consistent Test series opportunities for the Springboks had been a struggle throughout the 1970s and 80s as they largely found themselves pariahs from the international scene.
In 1989, so desperate were the domestic rugby bosses to ensure exposure for the Boks that caps were awarded to our national players in two “Tests” against a slightly motley-looking World XV that included several has-beens (or limited-reputation fill-ins in some berths, with respect), and was led by 31-year-old French scrumhalf Pierre Berbizier.
Along with the other tourists, those two “Tests” were not considered part of Berbizier’s eventual 56-cap career.
South Africa were clearly disjointed, too, under the leadership of stalwart Transvaal No 8 Jannie Breedt, as they eked out the Newlands tussle 20-19 and then the Ellis Park one 22-16.
Six starting Boks made their debuts in the series, after South Africa had last played official Test rugby in 1984 with respective series against England and an Argentinean-laden South America, both at home. (The 1986 series against the New Zealand Cavaliers was another not recognised in the global Test annals.)
The SA starting line-up only differed in one respect between the matches against the World XV, as Eastern Province loosehead strongman Frans “Domkrag” Erasmus was fielded out of normal habitat at tighthead in Johannesburg, after Flippie van der Merwe had been the No 3 in Cape Town.
This was the team for the second “Test”: 15 Johan Heunis, 14 Kobus Burger, 13 Faffa Knoetze, 12 Michael du Plessis, 11 Carel du Plessis, 10 Naas Botha, 9 Garth Wright, 8 Jannie Breedt (capt), 7 Gert Smal, 6 Burger Geldenhuys, 5 Adolf Malan, 4 Niel Hugo, 3 Frans Erasmus, 2 Uli Schmidt, 1 Heinrich Rodgers.
In a reflection of the time that elapsed before the Boks took to the field again – the poignant, effectively post-isolation clash with arch-rivals the All Blacks at Ellis Park in August 1992 – changes were very noticeably rung in team composition.
The only survivors in the start-out side were flyhalf Botha, now in the role of captain, Breedt, who kept his spot as a rank-and-filer at No 8, lean lineout specialist and Blue Bulls lock Malan, and front-rowers Schmidt and Rodgers.
It was the first fully-sanctioned Test between these rivals in 11 years, following the controversial, demo-disrupted Bok tour of New Zealand in 1981.
This was the Bok team who succumbed 27-24 to New Zealand, again displaying an understandable combination of naivety and cobwebs: 15 Theo van Rensburg, 14 James Small, 13 Danie Gerber, 12 Pieter Muller, 11 Pieter Hendriks, 10 Naas Botha (capt), 9 Robert du Preez, 8 Jannie Breedt, 7 Ian Macdonald, 6 Wahl Bartmann, 5 Adolf Malan, 4 Adri Geldenhuys, 3 Lood Muller, 2 Uli Schmidt, 1 Heinrich Rodgers.
Although the Boks showed commendable durability and resolve to strike back late, the score-line was a little deceptive as they were dominated for large portions of the match before late tries by Gerber and (Pieter) Muller brought some sense of respectability.
As many as 10 players, from the full match-day squad, debuted for South Africa that day, whereas Sean Fitzpatrick’s combination required no first-timers at all.
One comfort for the broad Bok squad of the current era is that, despite the lengthy period of inactivity between RWC 2019 and (probably) roughly the start of the 2021 Lions series, the vast nucleus of their personnel are well established under the astute guidance of Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and there should be relatively little breaking down of the side who floored England 32-12 in Yokohama …
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