Johannesburg - With two wins and two defeats from their four Rugby Championship matches thus far, the Springboks are two-thirds of the way through a tournament that has brought a new meaning to the expression “it’s been a roller coaster ride”.
READ: Massive Willie le Roux boost for Rassie, Boks
The wins have been inspirational and the defeats downright awful, but the one thing Rassie Erasmus’ team hasn’t been is boring.
Here are five things we learnt about them during the tournament:
Erasmus is like no other Bok coach
At the time of writing, Erasmus was still receiving invitations to spread his erudite brand of problem-solving, with this week’s nod to coach the Barbarians in December being a case in point. At this rate, his inbox may well be swelling with requests from the UN to solve the world peace issue once and for all.
Long story short, thanks in no small part to the SA Rugby director of rugby-meets-Springbok head coach axis, Erasmus is working on different rules to his predecessors. One win and two defeats – one of them against Argentina – going into last weekend’s game against New Zealand would have had many coaches under real pressure to lose their jobs. But with said pressure not even mentioned by the media despite an overall record of three wins and four defeats at the time, it took Erasmus himself to suggest that maybe he should be feeling the pinch.
But one sort of gets it when his Boks can produce an epic like the 36-34 victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand last Saturday.
Halfback a blinking problem
In the Boks’ past two games, against Australia and New Zealand, they relied on 22 players instead of the usual complement of 23 because Erasmus could trust neither Embrose Papier nor Ross Cronjé to make the necessary impact in replacing Faf de Klerk. This was despite the fact that De Klerk had had a nightmare against the Wallabies. Papier, Cronjé, Ivan van Zyl, Louis Schreuder and Cameron Wright have all auditioned for reserve scrumhalf, but not only do we not know who the second best halfback in the country is, we have no clue who the three would be in the squad for the World Cup next year. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is Erasmus’ most pressing problem.
Defence penny drops
Given the Boks’ propensity to concede early tries and consistently doing so out wide, many had forgotten Jacques Nienaber, who turned the Stormers’ once porous defence into an impregnable force in 2010, and were wondering what the fuss was all about. To be sure, the Boks still concede early (and out wide), but the monstrous defensive effort against the All Blacks showcased insane line speed, good decision making and workaholic scramble defence. It’s not the kind of defence on which civilisations are kept in business just yet, but the penny is dropping.
It doesn’t have to be Jantjies v Pollard
After years of having to pick one or the other for the flyhalf position, the frenzied last 23 minutes of the test against the All Blacks suggested the two may be better off working together, with Elton Jantjies at flyhalf and Handré Pollard at inside centre.
The two, whose body language around each other suggests they don’t believe the Bok starting line-up is big enough for the two of them, are as different in their attributes as you can get, but their qualities together make up for the incomplete flyhalf we seem to end up with each time one of them plays. With both playing, the benefits are plenty – an additional thinker on the field, a left- and right-foot kicking combination, players who see the game from incredibly different perspectives, additional depth at inside centre, vocal communicators and a spot on the bench for Damian Willemse to play more often.
The Wallabies are becoming a bogey team
Going into the Brisbane game three weeks ago, the Boks hadn’t won in Australia since 2013, and they promptly lost to a team missing Israel Folau and David Pocock, with regular flyhalf Bernard Foley starting off the bench. Few results highlight how difficult the Boks, who last beat the Wallabies at home in 2016, find beating Australia than last year’s unprecedented two draws between the two teams.
Add a couple of World Cup exits at their hands (1999 and 2011) and you have a team that’s basically the Boks’ bogey team in must-win games.