On Saturday, the Springboks became Rugby Championship champions for the first time in its current format.
Their last southern hemisphere trophy came in the 2009 Tri-Nations under Peter de Villiers, during which the Boks beat New Zealand three times. Post-retirement, Richie McCaw said it was the best team he had ever played against.
There was relatively mixed success for the Boks thereafter, but following the 2015 World Cup – during which they lost to Japan – things started to go badly wrong for the men in Green and Gold.
South Africa finished third in that World Cup by beating Argentina in the bronze medal match on the back of a two-point loss to New Zealand in the semi-finals. Despite a relatively good showing, Heyneke Meyer stepped down from his role as head coach at the end of the tournament.
Allister Coetzee was appointed to replace Meyer in 2016, and started his tenure with a 2-1 series win over Ireland in June. However, following that, South Africa had a poor Rugby Championship during which they only managed two victories and were thrashed 57-15 by the All Blacks in Durban.
Things went from bad to worse on their end-of-year tour as they drew with the Barbarians in a friendly before losing all of their November internationals, including a shock 20-18 defeat at the hands of Italy. It capped off a year in which the Boks had won just four of their 12 Test matches, making it the worst season in Springbok history.
It appeared as though things were improving when in 2017 they kicked off with a 3-0 whitewash of France in June. Back-to-back wins over Argentina and a draw against Australia in the three subsequent games meant the Boks went into their Rugby Championship fixture against New Zealand in Albany undefeated for the year.
However, what followed was one of the darkest days in South African rugby history: New Zealand 57-0 South Africa.
As if the fans weren’t troubled enough by the magnitude of the result, Coetzee said in his post-match interview: “I’m pleased with a couple of brilliant defensive efforts and a lot of positives that I can still take out of this game” – an indication of how far the Boks had fallen in the eyes of their coach as well as the watching world.
Another draw against the Wallabies followed, before the All Blacks rolled into Cape Town for the final match of the tournament. It was a much closer game, and in the end the All Blacks walked away with a 25-24 win. Some pride restored for South Africa, but a defeat nonetheless.
The 2017 November internationals were a mixed bag; victories over France and Italy sandwiched by losses to Ireland and Wales, and when the inconsistent results finally became too much for the South African Rugby Union to withstand, Coetzee was shown the door in February 2018.
In came Rassie Erasmus, and though his first game in charge saw a loss to Wales in Washington, the Boks – who by then had fallen to seventh in the world rankings – beat Eddie Jones’ England 2-1 in their June series.
South Africa vs Argentina
August 17, 2019, 3:55pm
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In August, in their now-traditional first game of the Rugby Championship, South Africa beat Argentina in Durban, but a week later were easily beaten by the same opposition in Mendoza. Then came a loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane, and suddenly Erasmus’ record was three wins from seven games.
Up next; the All Blacks in Wellington, a team whose only loss on home soil since that 2009 Tri-Nations came against the British and Irish Lions in 2017.
The Springboks went out with purpose and a ferocious rush defence and, a year after they were completely embarrassed by Steve Hansen’s side, beat them 36-34 in their own backyard. It not only marked that the Springboks were still capable of playing good rugby, but that New Zealand were beatable.
The All Blacks claimed their revenge a month later in Pretoria with a 32-30 victory, a loss that stung the Boks as they had held a healthy lead in the second half, but the belief had started to grow in South Africa.
Their November internationals were once again mixed, losing to England and Wales while beating Scotland and France. However, in the fixture that matters most to South Africans they had gone toe to toe with the All Blacks and shown over the course of two games that they were still a force in the Test arena.
They carried that belief into this year’s shortened Rugby Championship, beating the Wallabies in Johannesburg before heading back to Wellington and earning a draw through a last-minute try from Herschel Jantjies.
On Saturday, they sealed a Rugby Championship title win with victory in Salta, showing that while they may not be at the same heights as the class of 2009, they are unrecognisable from the side who were battered in Albany some 24 months ago.