17 Sep 2017

The more things change, the more they stay the same

3:19 pm on 17 September 2017

Opinion - Everything up until kickoff suggested this one was going to be different.

Eben Etzebeth shows his disappointment during the Rugby Championship test match rugby union.

Eben Etzebeth shows his disappointment during the Rugby Championship Test match. Photo: Photosport NZ

The Springboks were back, so we'd been led to believe. Five good wins then a draw against the Wallabies - the team that had been reduced to a rabble with losses to Japan and Italy over the past two seasons was now ready to get back and take on the All Blacks.

Through some as yet unexplained reason, the test match was even scheduled at a venue in New Zealand's South African heartland: Auckland's North Shore. All they needed was a braai in the parking lot to make the Boks feel even more at home.

I went down to the Springboks' captain's run the day before the game. It was warm and sunny, and the team spent the whole 15 minutes we were allowed to film them getting yelled at by assistant coach Brendan Venter.

Their heads were bowed, they looked like they meant business. I couldn't understand what Venter was saying, but his gesticulations were symptomatic of someone stressing that this may be the most important game of their lives.

Game day rolled around and the general feeling on the media bus was that this one was going to be a tight, tense affair. Question marks were hanging over the inexperienced front row and back three of the All Blacks, and they'd be prime targets for the traditional power game of the South Africans.

The ground announcer even got in on the act, giving the Springboks a pumped up run on song when they hit the field. As per usual the beautiful South African anthem sounded a million times better than the dirge-fest that is God Defend New Zealand.

We thought we were in for a classic, tight All Black/Springbok test. Then the game started.

I was worried after fulltime. I'd never been in a press conference where one side had so completely embarrassed the other. The air in the small room that Springbok coach Allister Coetzee and captain Eben Etzebeth walked into was thick with tension, mainly because the looks on their faces spoke volumes.

There were about a dozen of us there to find some sort of reason why they'd been so thoroughly trounced. Etzebeth took turns death-staring the lot of us, which was a frightening experience because he is a frightening human.

Meanwhile, Coetzee looked like he was about to burst into tears, while somehow trying to put a positive spin on the fact that the Boks had played 'really well' in the first 20 minutes.

South African head coach Allister Coetzee and player Eben Etzebeth talk to media after the Rugby Championship test match rugby union.

South African head coach Allister Coetzee and Etzebeth talk to media after the Rugby Championship Test match. Photo: Photosport NZ

It was impossible not to feel sorry for them, even through the silent implied-violence vibe Etzebeth was giving off. The Springboks are the All Blacks' most special rivals, the ones we treat differently to all the others. We want them to be good, and while an All Black win by 57 points is impressive, it would've been somehow a lot more satisfactory to beat them by one.

Last year I wrote about how it would just be a matter of time before the Springboks were good enough again before they could reclaim their spot as the All Blacks' number one rivals. My smugness at looking to be proven right was beaten just as badly as the Boks were on the field.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs

We have regular online commentary of local and international sport.