South Africa standsall alone at summit of Rugby World Cup as new eras beckon

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GIVE the Springboks a few days to revel in their record-breaking Rugby World Cup success. Give losing finalist New Zealand a little time to grieve.

But before long, those two giants and rugby as a whole will emerge from World Cup fever and face the prospect of entirely new eras. They’ll all do it with a hint of trepidation.

South Africa’s most successful coaching combination ever—some call it a rugby love affair—finally parted in the Paris night on Saturday with back-to-back titles for them and an unprecedented fourth Rugby World Cup win for their country. How on earth do the Springboks ever replace the Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber partnership?

New Zealand also bids farewell to coach Ian Foster and a group of retiring all-time All Blacks greats in Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Aaron Smith without the consolation of them leaving with winner’s medals around their necks. With those three players, the All Blacks see nearly 400 test caps of experience head off into the sunset. Also irreplaceable.

And the Rugby World Cup itself will not be the same the next time it kicks off in Australia in 2027. The sport’s showpiece will be expanded from 20 to 24 teams by then and the global game will have also undergone—according to plans announced last week—its most revolutionary change in 30 years.

THE END OF ‘RASNABER’

RASSIE ERASMUS and Jacques Nienaber have been inseparable since they began coaching together nearly 20 years ago, so much so that they are referred to as one—“Rasnaber”—in South Africa.

The 12-11 win over New Zealand in Saturday’s final was the last hurrah. Nienaber will leave as head coach. Erasmus stays on as South Africa’s director of rugby for now.

Make no mistake, they didn’t inherit what they’ve left, a top-ranked, world-beating team. They created it from ruins. When they were hired in 2018, the Springboks were quite simply at their worst and had twice been embarrassed by 50 points by the All Blacks among a trail of historic losses in the pre-Rasnaber years.

Erasmus and Nienaber won their first World Cup a year after coming in and the Springboks now have more titles than anyone having played two less tournaments than the others because of apartheid. The Springboks have four titles from eight appearances, an incredible 50 percent strike rate at the Rugby World Cup. Erasmus and Nienaber have a 100 percent strike rate.

Fill those shoes.

RESTORING THE ALL BLACKS

THAT task falls to Scott “Razor” Robertson, who has the head coach job already having been appointed in March to take over from 2024. He will walk into a renowned pressure cooker of a position with the temperature pushed higher and the desperation for success even more after the All Blacks’ agonizing near miss in France.

Rugby’s most celebrated team won’t start from square one, but with Whitelock, Retallick, Smith and hooker Dane Coles officially retiring and pivotal figures like captain Sam Cane, No. 8 Ardie Savea and two-time world player of the year Beauden Barrett the wrong side of 30 for another World Cup, there is no straightforward path to redemption in 2027.

“This one is going to stink for a bit as all losses do. It’s pretty tough at the moment,” New Zealand center Rieko Ioane said.

After 120 years of being rugby’s best team by virtue of their victories week in and week out, the three-time world champion All Blacks will without doubt be back.

RUGBY NEEDS MORE MATCHES

THERE will be more teams at the next Rugby World Cup, but that doesn’t necessarily confirm a thriving game.

What’s of primary concern for the development of the sport is the four years between World Cups, when the tier two teams are in the large part ignored by the rugby superpowers before everyone suddenly celebrates their participation at the big show. Take Samoa, which nearly beat former champion England in this World Cup having played a total of 13 matches in the four-year gap since the last World Cup.

In its latest attempt to redress that, World Rugby has announced a new international tournament from 2026. The 10 top tier teams will play each other in the closest rugby has come to a global season, and be joined by two as yet unnamed tier two teams. The other tier two teams can win promotion to the once-every-two-years tournament.

It’s designed to—but not certain to—solve rugby’s simple yet confounding problem: After 48 games packed into an intense, enthralling seven-week period in France—and even more promised for Rugby World Cup 2027—the likes of Samoa, teams that hold rugby’s hopes of growing, are still crying out for just a few more matches in the years in between.

“Just more games,” Samoa player Theo McFarland said after so nearly stunning England. “That could help us a lot.”

Image credits: AP

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