Rassie Erasmus has turned it around for the Springboks to the point that South Africa goes to the Rugby World Cup as a contender for the title and that's more than good enough for South Africans considering where the team was two years ago.

Historic losses to Italy, Ireland and Argentina, and one of the biggest humiliations in the team's history, a 57-0 trouncing by the All Blacks, shattered the Springboks' confidence.

The coach at the time, Allister Coetzee, said South Africa's rugby system was defective and there was no quick or easy fix, and he raised real fears that the two-time world champions would never be a force again.

That appears to be an exaggeration. A coaching change has done much to re-establish the Springboks' fortitude over the past 18 months.

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Erasmus is a former South Africa flanker who played at the 1999 World Cup. He took over a broken team in early 2018 and his influence was almost instant: A series win over England and a stunning victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand later in the year. South Africa had last won in New Zealand in 2009 and only one team, the Lions, had beaten the All Blacks on home soil since.

The Springboks followed up this year by winning the Rugby Championship for the first time in 10 years, although Erasmus was among the first to note that a curtailed, one-round southern hemisphere tournament means little once the Rugby World Cup kicks off. The Springboks face the enormous challenge of New Zealand in their opening game in Japan.

"The results and performances up to now will mean nothing once we are in Japan. It is a case of back to square one," Erasmus said.

His priorities on taking charge were to fix two things:

First, an ineffective defensive system that saw South Africa ripped apart by opponents. Defence specialist Jacques Nienaber, who was part of Erasmus' staff at Irish club Munster, returned to South Africa with the head coach and has re-organised the defence and rebuilt one of the Springboks' traditional strengths.

Second, and not as straightforward, Erasmus had to rebuild morale, which had been shredded by some drastic failures and a ruthless media.

Erasmus' decision to make flanker Siya Kolisi South Africa's first black test captain appears to have been a masterstroke in that regard.

Kolisi's appointment was hugely popular across South Africa and, crucially, within the squad, where Erasmus overlooked more experienced candidates such as lock Eben Etzebeth, Kolisi's close friend.

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The Springboks have the elements to be competitive in Japan: An always-strong forward pack with Malcolm Marx, a contender for the best hooker in the world, Etzebeth's physical presence in the second row, tireless flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, and experienced No 8 Duane Vermeulen. There are three playmakers in the backline in halfback Faf de Klerk, first five-eighths Handre Pollard and fullback Willie le Roux, and wings Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi have been in try-scoring form.

But Kolisi's personal story may give the Springboks something extra, something that can't be created on a practice field.

The 28-year-old came from a desperately impoverished background and rose from a township outside the city of Port Elizabeth to what's considered the pinnacle of South African sport, the Springboks captaincy.

"When I put on a jersey (I) remind myself who I'm playing for, everybody who has ever been hungry, everybody who's ever struggled financially, everybody who has walked to school without shoes on."

- AP