Cape Town – The harsh truth about the Springboks, ever since
Heyneke Meyer guided them to their last World Cup semi-final in 2015, is how
few players have genuinely looked settled in their positions in the roughly
two-and-a-half years subsequently.
How much you want to blame Meyer’s head-coach successor for
two years, Allister Coetzee, and now begin to shape some ideas around incumbent
Rassie Erasmus on that topic, is really up to you.
But it is also difficult for anyone to deny that a dangerous
fluidity currently abounds in far too many Bok berths … certainly based on
Saturday’s Mendoza mauling at the hands of Argentina, which inevitably stripped
away some of the enthusiasm that had been slowly mounting around what Erasmus
is trying to do in regrowth terms.
Finding individuals from that Bok starting XV who could be
said with some conviction to have “shone” was a pretty forlorn task.
Across the board, it was a bit of a horror show.
Of course there are several high-profile absentees at
present, but if you had to ask me right now to name the players from Saturday’s
start-out Bok team who I would pencil in confidently for a World Cup final suddenly
played tomorrow (our seventh-ranked national team would be unlikely
participants based on current status, of course) I might be able to muster some
four or five at very best.
Never mind that hypothetical RWC showpiece, though. Erasmus
has enough of a challenge in getting his mix right for the confirmed next task:
tackling Australia in Brisbane in the Rugby Championship fixture on Saturday
Apart from that stated problem of so many spots hardly
looking “locked” by specific individuals anyway, the Bok mastermind has
another, unusual head-scratcher to deal with – the fact that a handful of
players tumbled fairly spectacularly from hero to zero over the course of the
last two Saturdays.
I won’t try to argue that my regular Bok ratings after Tests
on Sport24 represent anything more than my subjective opinion, but the clear phenomenon
I found after doing the ones from Mendoza was how startlingly several players
plunged performance-wise from the Durban victory (34-21, with a bonus point) to
the away-leg loss (32-19, no log points to show at all).
Just for example, I had fullback Willie le Roux receding
from 7.5/10 (Kings Park) to 5.5 a week later, outside centre Lukhanyo Am
dropping from 7 to 4.5, left wing Aphiwe Dyantyi from 8 to 5.5, scrumhalf Faf
de Klerk from 6.5 to 4.5, open-side flank Francois Louw from 7 to 4 and lock Eben
Etzebeth from 7.5 to 4.
Look, too, at the front row, where the same, menacing staff
from Durban inexplicably nose-dived in Mendoza: Frans Malherbe from 7 to 4,
Malcolm Marx from 6.5 to 4.5, and Tendai Mtawarira from 7 to 4.5.
It’s difficult in broadest terms to criticise Erasmus, then,
over his latest selections: he seemed fully entitled to give a vote of
confidence, as he did, to that spotlighted large group of players from the one
Test to the next … yet they let him down badly the second time around.
What the trend seems to suggest is that the collective Bok
mindset went pear-shaped on Saturday, possibly seduced too much by the words of
generous reverence issued by Argentina’s coach Mario Ledesma from the Durban
outing. He almost, and shrewdly, made it sound as though the Boks were going to
be well-nigh unbeatable in the return clash.
Against that backdrop, Erasmus faces a poser: does he react
by making quite widespread changes now, to send out an early message in his
still-developing tenure that slackness won’t be tolerated, or would he be more
inclined to think that many of his personnel haven’t suddenly become bad
players overnight and that panic steps would be foolhardy that at this point?
Given that things had been going pretty swimmingly until the
Mendoza crash – the Test series triumph over England, the full house of log
points against the Pumas in KwaZulu-Natal – a personal inclination is that he
won’t (and with decent enough reason, I’d argue) shake the bag too violently
for Brisbane, even if there are some tweaks.
What also needs to be remembered is that quite a few current
Bok starters fall into the category of being a little short of game-time,
having recently come back from injury layoffs of varying magnitude.
Stalwart, normally highly-valued second-row meanie Etzebeth,
for instance, produced a level of vibrancy that was almost too good to be true in
Durban, his first game of rugby since early December last year.
In some respects, did he overdo it in his enthusiastic quest
to prove he was “back”? It may explain why he, along with several colleagues,
just didn’t seem to have quite the same legs in Argentina.
I believe a number of Springboks deserve a chance to atone
for Mendoza, and that Erasmus, even if feeling a bit miffed at present, will
come around to generally the same thinking in Brisbane next week …
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing