Springboks on a roll after sticking with coach
IT was less than a year ago that South African rugby was supposedly on life support.
No Super Rugby title in six years, a national team second guessing itself under new coach Allister Coetzee and numerous star players putting money before the Springboks jersey... it is fair to say South African rugby was in a deep hole.
But, despite suffering their worst season on record in 2016 - with the Springboks winning just four of 12 Tests - the South African Rugby Union ignored the critics and retained Coetzee.
In light of the success that Johan Ackermann was having at the Lions, and the outstanding style of rugby that they were playing, it was a brave decision.
But seven months after opting to forge ahead with Coetzee, SARU's decision to keep him in charge has proved to be an inspired decision.
On the back of the Lions' sustained success in Super Rugby, plus the improvement of the Stormers, Sharks and Kings, the Springboks have won five straight Tests to start 2017.
Just as impressive has been the conviction that they've won the Tests with.
Where they snuck past understrength Ireland last year, they thumped France 3-0 in 2017 and have carried the momentum into the Rugby Championship.
The Springboks have scored at least four tries in all five of their Tests this year and won each by a minimum of 18 points.
The Boks have scored more tries already this year (21) than they scored in 12 Tests last year (20).
World Cup-winning Wallaby Rod Kafer attributed the slow start under Coetzee to a transitional period following the 2015 World Cup, where they finished third after losing 20-18 to the All Blacks in the semi-final.
"When things go bad and you've got new players coming in, you're trying to mould a team together from different playing styles, it just takes a little bit of time,â€ Kafer said on Fox Sports: Kick and Chase.
"Moulding those two styles together (big, bullish forwards and skilful link play between the backs) is probably what they didn't do so well last year (but) have managed to do this year.
"They've got everything going.â€
While the Springboks appear to have turned the corner, Saturday's Test against the Wallabies in Perth shapes as a litmus test given their struggles away from home.
The Springboks haven't won in Australia since 2013 and their last win in New Zealand against the All Blacks was in 2009.
Yet this is a different Springboks team to the one we've seen in previous years.
While the Springboks have always had bullish forward packs with a strong set-piece focus, now they've got skill throughout the team, including in the back row where Stormers captain and flanker Siya Kolisi has personified the growth of the team.
"He (Kolisi) is a good example of everything that's good about the Springboks forward pack at the moment because he can run, he can pass and he's a great link player," former Wallaby Stephen Hoiles said.
"He's scored some pretty exciting tries over their last five games for them.
"But I love the fact, when we talk about the change in their footy, they can score some long range tries and it's because back-rowers like these guys can keep the ball alive.â€
And that confidence is also seeping into their coach.
On Monday, Coetzee had a cheeky dig at the Wallabies for their most recent loss against the All Blacks.
"To not to have won that one, I don't know how it slipped away in the last three minutes when you get so close to winning a Test," Coetzee said.
"They recovered well and to put themselves in a position to win it, you should win it.
They say a week's a long time in politics and that also applies to the Wallabies.
In Sydney they were alarming poor in their Bledisloe opener, losing 54-34, before the heartbreaking 35-29 defeat in Dunedin at a time when Australian rugby has arguably never been lower.
While winning the Rugby Championship looks out of reach for the Wallabies, Saturday's Test has never been more important - for both sides.
Australian rugby is reeling from the fallout of the Force's axing, and the Wallabies have the opportunity to lift the spirits of the nation and the state of Western Australia in particular.
Nothing but a win will be accepted.
But a rejuvenated Springboks can rain on the Wallabies' parade.