Johannesburg - He arguably chucked away a gilt-edged opportunity for a momentous series clean sweep over England for the sake of experimenting and testing his depth, but there is one thing that appears to be crystal clear to Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus - winning is the most important thing.
Erasmus has made no bones about the need to be brave with selection in the quest to build up the experience he believes is necessary for the Rugby World Cup in Japan next year. Speak to Erasmus about virtually any position in his team and he will relate it to the experience that is needed, according to supersport.com website.
He did it last week in Stellenbosch when, in reference to 20-year-old Damian Willemse’s emergence as a potential Bok No 10, he pointed out that no team has ever won a World Cup with a flyhalf younger than 24. And he did it again at the start of the build-up week to Saturday’s Argentina Test in Durban when he was asked about his second row depth, and RG Snyman’s claims in particular.
“I do have an ideal lock pairing (for the World Cup) in mind, but the most important thing is that we must make sure we build up the experience of the players in contention,” said Erasmus.
“RG is talented, but he is still young, and if we don’t give him opportunities he will lack experience. We can’t expect him to win a World Cup for us if he just plays six or seven Test matches before then.
“He’s got to be comfortable at international level, he’s got to have experienced winning both at home and away from home. So while yes, I do have an ideal combination in mind, in the meantime we are going to have to mix and match a bit.”
Eben Etzebeth, because he is making his comeback after a long lay-off and therefore could be vulnerable if he has to come off the bench early on and be required to play the full game, is expected to start against the Pumas. With skipper Siya Kolisi now looking destined for a blindside flank role, Etzebeth’s Stormers lock partner Pieter-Steph du Toit will probably start with him (Erasmus has mentioned Franco Mostert as a player who perhaps needs a rest).
But that does not mean that the second row pairing for the Kings Park clash is his preferred combination at present, and it should not be forgotten that the colossally built and gifted Lood de Jager, who was back in his best form in the early stages of Super Rugby this year, is out with injury.
Erasmus is adamant though that there is no question of his mixing and matching, as he puts it, and his willingness to be bold, getting in the way of his desire to win every game he presides over as coach.
“People get it wrong when they say there is no pressure on me because of my six year contract,” he said.
“You can’t divorce my director of rugby role from my current role as coach. I am under no illusions that if I am not successful now as the Bok coach I can then still continue as director of rugby. They are linked.
“Struggling and not being able to hold onto the job is not what I am worried about though. Don’t get me wrong, I love this job and I love the Springboks. But I can get another job if it falls apart. What concerns me more is the probability that the goals we are busy with in terms of uplifting and revolutionising several aspects of the South African game across all levels might fall off track if we (the Boks) are not winning.
“So while it is important to build for the World Cup, I want to win as much as possible,” added the coach.
What Erasmus understands full well is that winning makes development much easier. Or put another way, losing makes it almost impossible because of the perceptions that are build around a struggling team.
“It is always difficult to change things and experiment when you lose. When you make changes when you lose people call it crisis management. Winning brings you the space that you need to try things.”
Of course we saw that at the end of the England series, when Erasmus tried different combinations in the final test and the Boks lost without surrendering the bragging rights of being series winners.
That though was four matches into his reign, and you could say three if you regard the first test under his watch against Wales in Washington as an exhibition game rather than real dinkum international rugby. He has more of a chance now to build his team around the time-honoured dictum that you introduce new faces around an experienced core.
He referenced Francois Louw, who is back to play for the Boks from Bath, as a player who is here to have his experience rub off on the players around him. He may or may not invoke Regulation 9 later in the competition to prevent Louw and the other England based duo of Willie le Roux and Fat de Klerk returning to their clubs when the Boks go into the home leg of their Championship campaign.
But he is clear that his ideal would be for the Boks to build and win well enough early in the competition to make it possible for him to release those players so that other players who profit in the meantime from the trio’s experience can build their own international CVs in the Port Elizabeth clash with the Wallabies and the Pretoria showdown with the All Blacks.
“The understanding with Flo (Louw) is that we have him from the beginning. Regulation 9 makes it possible for us to draw on him for every single test match, but we must be reasonable. Guys like Flo are eager to contribute and for the first four games (of the Championship) we will use him as much as we can. We want the young guys to suck up everything he can give them and then plan going forward off that base.”
Winning though is the imperative, and if things go pear-shaped in the early part of the Championship, and the Boks find themselves going into the home leg in a proper crisis situation, then Erasmus will invoke Regulation 9 and he will retain whichever overseas based player he feels he needs.
“While we could have all those guys play for us for the whole Rugby Championship, we have to think about the World Cup, and what we will do if guys like Duane (Vermeulen) and Faf are injured. We have to look at a few guys in the context of next year,” said Erasmus.
“But we will handle it on a case-by-case basis. There is a chance those players will go back (to England), say after the Australasian tour. A good chance. But if we have a lot of injuries and are under pressure after a few bad results, we may keep them back.”
As Erasmus says, if the team is not winning it makes it harder for him to try new things and to successfully build depth.
“A lot of the individual players are in different spaces going into the Championship. Someone like Lukhanyo Am has yet to lose a Test match under my coaching. For others it is different, they’ve played only in games where we have lost. I need to be aware of all of that and the way to take care of it is to build a successful, winning culture.”
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