One UK rugby writer probably summed up the old view of overseas observers when he said it appeared after the 38-3 defeat by Ireland in Dublin in 2017 that the Springboks had fallen off the end of a cliff from which they would never return.
Wins against France and Italy followed on that tour but internationally the obituaries were being written about the Springboks.
A change in coaching leadership for the 2018 season – with Rassie Erasmus assuming the responsibilities on top of the duties as Director of Rugby – began the turning of the corner.
A new coaching team featuring long-time collaborator Jacques Nienaber, Mzwandile Stick, Swys de Bruin and Matthew Proudfoot – retained from the previous management – saw an immediate improvement performances although the win ratio in 2018 didn’t reflect it.
A series win over England, a first away victory over New Zealand in a decade and a sequence of achingly narrow defeats by England (away) and the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld suggested the corner had been turned.
Results in 2019 – with only one defeat in 10 matches and a win ratio of 80 percent – have confirmed it.
The influence of Erasmus and Nienaber – and their long association – has been a focus of international media who wanted to know how they had first met and how Nienaber had transitioned from being a physiotherapist to one of the game’s leading defence coaches.
"We met a long time ago, when we were in the army together,” said Nienaber.
“In the army, you get fairly tight. Then we went to university together. He was much better in the army than I was. He was a very good tactician, as you can see.
"Then we met up again when I was the physio and he was the captain of the university team. We have been friends for a long time, but as we always say, whenever there is a rugby decision that needs to be discussed, sometimes we disagree and we get angry at each other.
“"But it’s never personal. It’s always to make the team better. We’ve got a good relationship in terms of that. We are friends on the one side, but Rassie is my boss. We can have a drink together, but when we have to make decisions about rugby, we don’t have egos of accepting the route we want to take."
Erasmus said their conversations about rugby tactics had grown as Erasmus was on the physios table. With Nienaber moving into strength and conditioning and then developing into a full time defence expert.
“I became a coach as soon as I stopped playing,” he said.
“I brought Jacques in as a conditioning coach right away. His passion, knowledge and work ethic around defence was evident even back then. He’s very good with people and in terms of communicating what he wants. He gets the message across brilliantly.”
When Nienaber began to concentrate on defence at the start of the century it was a new coaching discipline in rugby with only a few exponents beginning to make their in rugby – the trailblazers such as Australian Les Kiss (who worked with the Boks under Harry Viljoen) and Shaun Edwards, the highly-rated Wales defence coach, having been imported from rugby league.
“It was a much easier transition [from a non-coaching role] as there weren’t many defence coach around,” said Nienaber.
But after the best part of two decades honing their coaching craft in partnership, the pair have restored the Boks’ reputation for outstanding defence.
Edwards – whose Welsh team had the best defensive record in 2018 – paid Nienaber the compliment of noting that the Springboks had the best defensive record this year.
Erasmus and Nienaber are intent on making sure that title does not slip on Sunday.