Rugby Championship

Rassie’s message as Boks gather

2018-08-08 12:33
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Rassie Erasmus will have a clear message to deliver to his players as the arrival of the Lions players brings his Springbok squad selected for the forthcoming Rugby Championship up to full complement in Stellenbosch on Wednesday. 

In essence the message won’t differ from the one he delivered before the June series against England or for that matter in the alignment camps before that. But with new additions to the group, this first day with the whole squad together will be important in terms of laying down the ground rules and being clear about the objectives, according to the website

There has been much talk from Erasmus since he took over about next year’s World Cup and so far he has been prepared to be brave and take risks to the end of building depth. It could well be argued that he sacrificed the last test against England at Newlands, and the chance of a 3-0 series sweep, to experimentation. 

But that does not mean that Erasmus doesn’t see the importance of getting results in the here and now. As he is fond of saying, he has bought into the reality that a Bok coach that does not win does not stay around long. 

“We all know that if the results don’t come then in a couple of weeks’ time you guys are going to be asking me about my future,” said Erasmus at a press briefing earlier this week. 

“There are three things, three pillars to our goal-setting and I will explain it to the players again when the Lions players join on Wednesday. Firstly we need to be winning, secondly we need to be transforming (in terms of racial representation within the group), and thirdly we need to be building depth.

“Winning is the primary thing. Just like I said before the June matches, I know I won’t still be sitting here if we have a terrible Rugby Championship. But we also need to build towards being successful. In saying that, I am not saying judge me on the Rugby World Cup.” 

So far Erasmus has delivered on the three pillars he refers to. The loss to Wales with an under-strength team in Washington was disappointing but there were mitigating circumstances while the defeat in the last test against England can be understood, so the series win against Eddie Jones’ men over-shadows the fact that at this embryonic stage of his tenure Erasmus’ win record is still just 50%. 

The Boks showed some impressive elements to their game in the two wins over England, including the composure required to fight back twice from big deficits. That composure and calmness under pressure was not there before and the turn-around is because of the assurance and composure brought by Erasmus to his job. 

The series win over England was achieved with a team that showed a good racial mix and was led by the Boks’ first black captain. Over the four tests, Erasmus also introduced several new players into the international arena, and while not all of the selections came off, the coach felt afterwards that he had learned quite a bit about who was potentially up to it and who wasn’t. 

South Africa experienced a disappointing Super Rugby season in 2018, and while the Lions did make the final and finished second on the overall log, most people accept that wouldn’t have been the case had it not been for the crazy machinations of the competition format. 

But the fact they did get it together once key players had returned from injury - they were probably pretty close to being the second best team in the competition by the time the business end arrived - and were more competitive in the decider in Christchurch will have brought some confidence. 

“The Lions lost the final but they were still better than 13 other teams in the competition,” said the Bok coach. 

Erasmus drew on his own experience as a player to back up his argument that the Super Rugby failures should not have an impact on the Bok performances in the Championship that starts for the South Africans with the clash with Argentina in Durban next Saturday. 

“I think the impact on you psychologically is an individual thing, but I know that when Nick Mallett was coaching us back in 1998 we were very successful as a Springbok team and yet the teams were struggling in Super Rugby,” said Erasmus. 

“I was playing for the Cats and we were languishing around 12th in a 12 team competition. Only one local team challenged for a place in the play-offs in those days and finished about fourth overall. Yet when we played for the Boks we went unbeaten for most of the year (and won the Sri-Nations for the first time). 

“Some people see losing a lot in Super Rugby as baggage and there is a feeling you have to get the monkey off your back, but it differs from player to player. For me the way we turned around the first England test, recovering from a 24-3 deficit early on, to win the series makes me not nervous but confident.” 

Erasmus knows repeating the 1998 feat by winning the southern hemisphere competition in its new incarnation as the Rugby Championship (since Argentina joined the Boks, Wallabies and All Blacks) is a tough assignment. He agrees that the All Blacks, who will start as clear favourites to win the tournament again, have an awesome squad. 

“What impresses me about the All Blacks group is the spread of their players. They don’t have a whole lot of players from one franchise taking up the key positions. They have three scrum halves from different franchises, maybe the locks and props are from the same region, but otherwise it is a case of a Hurricanes player next to a Chiefs or Highlanders player. 

“It makes the rest of us in the coaching world look at it and wonder and ask how they do it? They have incredible versatility and it is nonsense to say all the Kiwi provinces play the same. They don’t. They play very different styles. And yet when the players come together as the All Blacks it just works for them and the team gels. 

“That versatility and experience makes it very challenging for the rest of us. But then we knew that already. Everybody knows that.”

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