It's been a phenomenal year for South African rugby. Not in the sense of a victories, progress or performances, more so the pulsating moments of class and competitiveness, blended into sheer befuddlement. On the face of it, it's been a stellar year. Firstly, a series win at home to an England side reeling after a dreadful 6 Nations showing. Followed by a second place finish in The Rugby Championship with a win in New Zealand, many would assume South African rugby is at its peak heading into a world cup year, however, when digging a little deeper, a common theme runs through the Mzansi.
The year began as 2017 ended with defeat to Wales. An exhibition match played in the June summer of New York City ended in close defeat, which, at the time, didn't hold any major significance. The game was a prelude to the first of three 2018 competitions for the nation, opening with a visit from the touring English. The initial bout, ending 42 - 39 was a showcase of what both nations have in the back division. 9 tries all in on the day, every single player crossing the whitewash a back, was followed by the polar opposite, in a forward dominated 23 - 12 suffocation that crowned The Boks series winners. At this point South African rugby was feeling good about itself, showing two sides to a coin against apparent top opposition is tough enough, even more commendable in the space of a week. The final game saw changes for both sides, and an English victory. Not too much concern for the hosts, with so many positives to take from the tripod of games, notably the individual performances of Handre Pollard and Sibusiso Nkosi, and a team that finally has struck the balance of shared workload and organisation throughout a nation that have sorely lacked both elements in recent years.
A brilliant yet mindboggling four nations followed. South Africa began with a comprehensive 6 try victory over supposed weaklings Argentina in Durban, Aphiwe Dyantyi the star with a brace. The story of their campaign however, began to write itself a week later in Mendoza, failing to capitalise on that early domination, and falling foul with humbling defeat to the same opponents. That pattern was to maintain, a win and a loss to both Australia and the All Blacks saw South Africa finish a distant second to holders New Zealand. In those fixtures, South Africa overcame Australia comfortably at home, and also were in the running for performance and result of the year with a stunning victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand. Southern Hemisphere's showpiece ended with three wins and defeats for The Boks, dissapointing, if not disasterous.
Despite the anti climatic campaign, South Africa were back with the international pedigree they've lacked in the previous four years. Despite the disappointing losses to a regressing Argentina and an Australian union in the midst of an identity crises, there were major positives throughout. The flawless execution from 9 as world player of the year Faf De Klerk continued to make light work of opposing back row. Willie Le Roux re-stamped his credentials as the worlds best 15 with expansive attacking and solid defending. Both men continue to perform above and beyond so many of their counterparts, but the most appeasing aspect is the levels of consistency they achieve in both the green of South Africa and their club colours, Sale and Wasps.
Not that those two are hard enough to contain, Aphiwe Dyantyi led the competition with 5 tries, as Handre Pollard totted up the third highest points scored. In the pack, the domineering Eben Etzebeth won the most lineouts in competition (28), whilst Pieter-Steph du Toit (83) and Siya Kolisi (67) had the first and third most tackles in the competition, du Toit with 10 more than his nearest competition David Pocock.
Into November and the story was much the same, close defeats to England and Wales, with tight victories over France and Scotland. Another winger with lightening pace and trickery in Sibusiso Nkosi, scores against England and France added more competition to a team loaded with talent out wide. With Cheslin Kolbe and Dyantyi, South Africa have an arsenal of comprehensive finishers with an abundance of speed, power, and a dusting of magic. The one caveat to that adulation is the concern surrounding Nkosi's defending. Shown up in the tight 42 - 39 win over England in June, 5 missed tackles, with 4 in the fixture in November, if he is to hold off the advances of Kolbe and Dyantyi, he must improve defensively. Another positive aspect is a settled Handre Pollard at first five eighth, something most international coaches pine for. That balance at 10 allows South Africa to be patient and organised with the wealth of talent around him, while they also offer multiple threats from the boot in Pollard, Le Roux & Jantjies.
In 2018, the Boks have shown two sides, one, an excellent ability to win high scoring, pulsating games in style, the other, an inability to close out close, lower scoring bouts, both at home and away. The signs of a good side are there, however, the signs of inconsistency are more apparent, and without addressing that, the imbalance and inconsistency will prevail. With a World Cup on the horizon, the timing of the win over New Zealand could not have been better; they face battle in Pool B, with the winner a definite uncertainty.
Where South Africa go from here is anybodies guess. A shocking exit in the World Cup pool stages would be just that, however, defeat in the first knockout round, or going on to win the whole thing doesn't seem beyond them and both scenarios are wholly achievable. This is still a positive time to be a South African, gone are the days of internal fighting, squad selection politics and humiliating defeat. Now South Africa has not just a team, but a squad, brimming with talent and confidence that if they can just hit harmonious form at the right time, may well be unstoppable.