The Springboks have named an unchanged side for their semi final clash against England, something that has surprised, and perhaps even concerned, a few people. After all, the last time they named an unchanged side was in 2019, and Rassie and Jacques do love to tinker with combinations and game plans. And the game against France must have taken a toll on the players. But this speaks to more than consistency. It showcases an overarching theme that comes to mind whenever I think about this team. Trust.
The rugby world has watched on as the Springboks have done things no one expected – the 7-1 split, replacing an injured hooker with a flyhalf, the mark call for scrum, the charged down conversion, to name but a few. It doesn’t just take a bunch of rugby renegades or a maverick mindset to do these things. It takes a level of trust that is quite special. Handre Pollard has been quoted this week as saying that the coaches have earned the players’ trust through the work they have put in and the way they plan. The squad believes wholeheartedly in the coaches’ vision, and so when ideas that may seem crazy to those watching from the outside are proposed, the players are all in. Likewise, it’s clear that the coaches trust the players unreservedly. So, if Cheslin Kolbe believes he knows exactly how to take advantage of Thomas Ramos’ slow kicking style, he’s empowered to make that charge down. Manie Libbok can ignore all the outside noise and just keep levelling up his game. Faf de Klerk can make the big steal, and end the dreams of French fans. Because the level of trust between coaches and players also means the players are able to trust their own abilities and instincts too, and those of their team mates. Whatever outsiders may think about traffic lights and micromanagement.
That trust, of course, is rooted in the transparency that has always been a priority for Rassie and Jacques. The players know exactly where they stand and what is expected of them, and it allows them to buy into the plan. Even if the plan doesn’t involve them playing that week, they trust that they have another role to play, whether it’s referee analysis or scrum prep, and they are willing to give their all for the bigger vision. It’s a remarkable team culture, really.
It’s not always easy as fans to have the same implicit trust in the coaches and team, because we don’t see the details that they do. When Damian Willemse called the mark and then asked for a scrum during the quarter final, I felt two things. Confusion, because when have we ever seen that before?! And, oddly enough, a rare moment of calm during that frenetic game. It was so obviously a tactic that had been discussed and planned by the coaches, and it just reminded me that of course, they have a strategy! We lose sight of that in the panicky moments, and in our desperate desire to win. Even when we think it hasn’t worked out – the 7-1 split against Ireland, for example – we need to trust that they’ve considered all the permutations before taking these calculated risks. We’re still in the semis, regardless of that loss, so what was its impact, really? And so, as supporters, it’s up to us to trust too. From trust, comes belief. When I look at this team, I am reminded of how I felt in 2019. Despite the tumultuous few years the Springboks had had, I believed they could win the World Cup because of the team culture that they were building. That culture is even more entrenched now – it’s evident in the way the players interact, in the way that they speak to and about each other, and in the trust they have in each other, and in the coaches, and the coaches have in them. It’s beautiful. So, while I know anything can happen in knockout rugby, and this could be our last weekend in the tournament, I believe.