Dublin (AP) — For the Springboks, the year has been about putting their house back in order.
Safe to say, it’s no longer a shambles. On home turf in South Africa they were tough, losing only once, by one point to the All Blacks less than a month after losing to them in New Zealand by a record 57.
Which is why the Springboks haven’t regained that aura of intimidation.
Away from home, they remain meek.
Since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, they have played nine tests on the road and won only one, against struggling Argentina in August.
When the Springboks were last in Europe a year ago, they lost to England for the first time in 10 years, to Italy for the first time, and to Wales for the third time in 110 years.
Those results capped an annus horribilis beset by a player drain, injuries, poor selections, sloppy play, and diminished confidence.
Whether that away record is improved over the next four Saturdays, starting with Ireland in Dublin, will make or break the modest gains by coach Allister Coetzee and the Springboks this year.
If only Ireland, France, Italy, and Wales – “hellish challenges,” Coetzee said – were all he had to contend with. There’s also a reshuffling in the background.
His forwards coach Johann van Graan is leaving in mid-tour to take over as Munster coach, a loss summed up by former Springboks captain Adriaan Strauss, who described Van Graan as “probably the most knowledgeable guy in rugby that I know.”
Rassie Erasmus is moving the other way, leaving Munster to take over as South Africa director of rugby, with his defence coach at Munster, Jacques Nienaber, becoming a high performance coach. These appointments have led to murmurings about Coetzee’s future should things go badly over the next month.
Only wins will put a lid on those murmurings, and there’s a firm belief they can take at least three of the four tests.
But they start with what looks to be the hardest opponent, an Ireland team the Springboks used to own. Before 2004, South Africa lost only once to the Irish. But in the last 13 years, the Boks have lost five out of nine, including the last visit to Lansdowne Road in 2014.
“We have a huge respect for Ireland,” Coetzee said. “They are a quality side, almost the All Blacks of Europe.”
The coach believed the Boks have heeded the lessons of their failings in November last year.
“The aerial game might not be important in Super Rugby but in the northern hemisphere you will face an aerial bombardment and we will have to deal with that,” Coetzee said. “We know how good (Irish halves) Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray are as prolific kickers of the ball.
“Our opponents are likely to be very good at tactical kicking and challenging for the ball in the air. I’ve learned that three points in the northern hemisphere is quite vital to keep that scoreboard ticking.”
That’s not all that is ticking. Coetzee’s future is still on borrowed time. He patched up the Springboks at home. Can he conjure results on the road?