Excelling in a climate of expectation

There is an unprecedented level of expectation on the Springboks and a measure of how good this current generation is will be revealed in how they respond to that expectation.

The Springboks have been lavished with praise in recent weeks, from former Springbok coach Nick Mallett predicting that they would defend their Tri-Nations crown, to All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick writing in his New Zealand Herald column that the Springboks’ form, depth and experience scares him.

The liberal outpouring of praise was evident in the Australian and New Zealand media was well. That the latter have generally tempered expectations, even though they play two home Tests against the Springboks in the tournament, is a testament to their opponents’ quality at present.

The New Zealand rugby fraternity will see assertions that their side have lost their invincible aura as Springbok arrogance. It is not. The Springboks still have a great deal of respect and a healthy fear of the Blacks, but recent successes, not least of all three victories in 2009, have eroded the aura that used to paralyse South African players.

Heightened expectation is a by-product of consistent success, and it’s under those circumstances that the Springboks must show their mettle.

The Springboks have in the past thrived when expectations were low, but that is no longer the case. The great sides have ridden that wave of expectation with consummate composure and skill. This will be the Springboks’ challenge in the coming months, beginning with the first of two Tests against the All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday.

The Springboks have earned the right to feel confident about a series victory over their traditional rivals, as have Springbok supporters, whose expectation has been fuelled by last year’s series win over the British & Irish Lions, a Tri-Nations campaign that saw their side lose just one of six matches, and recent victories over Wales, France and Italy.

To say the expectation has been high since after their World Cup triumph would be naive, and fails to take into account that many (mostly foreign) critics perceived the Springboks’ success in France as being a hallow one given that they hadn’t negotiated the challenge of Australia, New Zealand or France. To revisit the validity that line of criticism would be futile, but it remains a fact that the Springboks journey to the title was widely viewed as easy.

In 2008 Peter de Villiers was appointed and through his media offerings and Saru president Regan Hoskins’ ill-considered concession that De Villiers was not selected on rugby credentials alone, he was cast as the ultimate underdog. His appreciable success in his three-year tenure thus far means that is no longer a role he can assume. Like his players, De Villiers must now accept that that success has thrown a magnetic spotlight onto him.

He’ll be judged by an exceptionally high standard going forward, and this is justified given that he has at his disposal arguably the finest group of players in Springbok history, notwithstanding injuries to some exceptional players and the continued non-selection of the gifted Frans Steyn.

Ignoring their penchant for dramatic capitulations at World Cups, the All Blacks of the early and mid 2000s developed the habit of performing consistently under the weight of expectation. They embraced their status as favourites in every Test they entered into and generally played in a manner befitting that billing. In defeat, there were no complaints about the pressure that expectation created. They understood that champion teams elicit lofty, sometimes unrealistic, expectations.

This is where the Springboks find themselves. A measure of just how good this current generation is will be revealed in how they respond to that expectation.

By Ryan Vrede