“If we take our foot off the pedal, if we start not playing that well, our win record dips and we are not doing as well with transformation, then I feel we will be a failure again like after 1995 and 2007.”
Those were the words of South Africa’s RWC 2019-winning Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus earlier this month as he prepared to hand over the baton to new Springboks head coach, Jacques Nienaber.
Back in 1995, the World Rugby Men’s Rankings did not exist as a tangible measure of the world champions’ fall from grace but just one win in four Tri-Nations fixtures the following year tells its own story.
By 2007, though, the rankings had been around for four years and England were an object lesson in how quickly fortunes can change.
Following the retirement of Martin Johnson and a number of their ‘old guard’, England plummeted from number one in the world to third in the 12-month period immediately after their success in Australia before dropping even further to sixth a year on. Over the course of that two-year period, they dropped 7.43 points from a peak of 90.24 to 82.81.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s inability to build on their 2007 success in France coincided with a difficult bedding in period for their new head coach, Pieter de Villiers.
During his four years in charge, from 2008 to 2012, he guided the team to a test series victory against the British and Irish Lions in 2009, won the Tri-Nations that same year and had an impressive 47 per cent winning record against the All Blacks.
However, a return of just two wins from his first six Tri-Nations encounters, even if one was a famous victory against the All Blacks in Dunedin, saw South Africa lose more rating points (3.06) in the 12-month period post-Paris as opposed to England’s 2.94-point drop in the year following their Sydney heroics.
With the upturn in results under de Villiers, it wasn’t long before they regained their world number one status from New Zealand, climbing back up to 91.70 points – nearly a point higher than their total when they were crowned 2007 champions.
New Zealand, meanwhile, enjoyed unprecedented success in the four-year cycle between their Rugby World Cup wins of 2011 and 2015.
Refusing to let anyone knock them off their perch as number one, they reeled off 42 wins, including a stretch of 17 victories in a row, achieving the first unbeaten international season in the professional era.
During the first year of their reign as RWC 2011 champions, they increased their lead over Australia at the top of the rankings to 6.54 points, an improvement of a fraction under one-and-a-half points, with an overall rating of 91.43 points.
Similarly, the 12-month period after 2015, when Richie McCaw lifted the trophy for a second time, was one where they improved their cushion over the Wallabies, this time by 0.47 of a point, but with a much-improved rating of 96.10 points.
Once the current Springbok world champions are able to start their title defence, it will be fascinating to see if they can heed the lessons of their history and hit the ground running and hold onto the top spot for a lot longer than they did 13 years ago.
Presently, they have a 2.08-point advantage over the All Blacks at the top of the rankings.