Cape Town - Already highly touted, and teeming with truly international superstars? Hardly.
The Springboks’ disastrous two years beforehand, and still schizophrenic first year under his charge in 2018 (7/14 win record, remember), ensured that Rassie Erasmus’s RWC 2019 heroes entered the event a long way from universal fancy to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup.
That they did so was - perhaps more than anything else - a triumph of strategic, tactical and deeply methodical preparatory mastery from their head coach.
It made him the runaway candidate (and then, duly, choice) for the World Rugby coach of the year mantle, just a day after the sizzling World Cup final victory.
Here is my own narrowing-down to nine - there are probably more! - choices of Erasmus masterstrokes from the World Cup, but also the associated 2019 Test year more broadly …
1 Hunger-triggering rotation policy
It began in the first Test of the year, when the Boks took some two thirds of their premier players to New Zealand ahead of customary schedule (for the Test a week onward), and fielded a highly experimental side in the Rugby Championship opener against Australia in Johannesburg: in an event that would become increasingly significant as a depth indicator, the near “second-stringers” thumped the Wallabies 35-17 anyway. Erasmus ensured physical and mental freshness at pivotal times throughout 2019 for his troops by rotating personnel deftly, so that nobody fell victim to ceaseless “flogging”, if you like. But the policy also ensured that players had suitable appetites to exploit every opportunity to the maximum, leading to healthily stiff competition, and complacency being stripped from the equation.
2 Early arrival in Japan
South Africa were the first RWC-participating team to arrive in Japan … virgin territory, remember, as a host of the event. To the credit of both Erasmus and his SA Rugby bosses, they even played a valuable, sharpening (and morale-boosting, considering Brighton 2015!) full-blooded Test against the Brave Blossoms and thrashed them. While some might have envisaged a greater risk of “tour fatigue” perhaps setting in an advanced stage of the World Cup, it simply never became apparent with the Boks. They also got to grips quicker than most with the late-summer local humidity - Bok conditioning levels were also pleasingly top-notch - and then gradual swing toward cooler, night-dew autumnal conditions in the country.
3 Game, set match in KO phase: 6-2, 6-2, 6-2
Yes, it sounds more like a tennis result, but Erasmus’s (debatable, certainly initially) faith in a 6-2 bench split between forwards and backs became a favoured policy for all three Bok matches in the business-end knockout phase … and it worked. The heavily pack-dominated “Bomb Squad” became synonymous with a no-let-up sort of hallmark against rival eights, often already under the cosh and then hammered further by the second-half-infused likes of Messrs Kitshoff, Koch, Marx and Mostert in the heart of the engine room.
4 Wicked shift in game-plan for final
The Boks weren’t scared to raise the ire of “romantics” by adopting a particularly caution-characterised game plan in each of the quarter-final (Japan) and semi (Wales), with a sea of suffocating Faf de Klerk box-kicks the overwhelming trend. But then just when it seemed the cunning fox Erasmus would doggedly stick to the dour, unashamed “what works for us” for the showpiece against England, his charges mixed up their approach a lot more … including slashing the tactical kicks by some 55 to 60 percent. The English were truly caught off guard, and South Africa became stirringly, increasingly attractive in the way they turned the screws in the second half. Both tries were gems, and the Boks would almost certainly have dotted a third but for a horrible bounce to Handre Pollard’s smart cross-kick toward poacher extraordinaire Makazole Mapimpi.
5 Defiant faith in sometimes struggling players
Speaking of Mapimpi, the left wing was one of the players under scrutiny just ahead of RWC over his defensive competence and alignment in the sometimes complex “rush” system. Yet even as he was caught out positionally at times, he kept on striking in the try column … a trend that carried forcefully into the tournament. And as it developed, so his defensive side of things went up by noticeable notches, all the while. Come the final, and he was even bossing aerial duels with vital regularity. Then there was Willie le Roux: maddeningly error-prone for much of the World Cup, the seasoned fullback seemed a candidate for the chop in the knockout phase. But Erasmus (also realising he needed some balance-bringing experience in his back three) resisted, clearly budgeting on “delivery” from Le Roux and one or two other misfirers when it mattered the most. It came, too: in the key cauldron of the final.
6 Bringing black African players to the fore
Remember this much: when the Boks won their first World Cup in 1995, there were no black African players in the squad mix at all, and only (the sadly now late) Chester Williams to carry the baton for players of colour more broadly. By 2007, a dozen years onward, there were an improved seven players of colour in the again Cup-clinching squad … though just one black African presence in the shape of fairly peripheral wing Akona Ndungane. But in the RWC 2019 final alone, Erasmus fielded five black African players in his shop-window starting XV: Lukhanyo Am, Mapimpi, captain Siya Kolisi - a seismic development in itself, especially considering the outcome - Bongi Mbonambi and Tendai Mtawarira. He has done more than any Bok coach before him to meaningfully advance the exposure of gifted black rugby players in the country.
7 No paranoia about Cheslin Kolbe’s size
Understandably, to a point, there was a certain nervousness around South Africa pinning regular faith at right wing (a role often enough filled by some notable physical behemoths in other top-tier Test teams) in a player of peculiarly modest physique: the 1.70m, less-than-80kg Kolbe. Despite being 26 now, and already well-known to the SA rugby public through his exploits for the Stormers/WP and more recently Toulouse, he did not feature in earlier Bok coaching regimes – only earning the first of his now 14 caps in Erasmus’s maiden year at the tiller in 2018. But he has never really looked back … ending RWC as one of the hottest names on global enthusiasts’ lips both for his electric footwork on attack and the sheer courage and tenacity of his (yes, rock-like) defence.
8 Everyone getting a slice of the action
Erasmus seemed to spiritedly ensure (both in the 2019 lead-up Tests and at RWC itself) that there were no idle, potentially demoralised “tackle bag holders” in his squad. Even the more obviously peripheral members of his parties - and that can’t really be helped sometimes, when you have 30-plus players on your hands - were usually given a reasonable crack at actual combat. The coach gave fringe players generous activity, for instance, against the more “minnow” nations in Japan, and they seldom let him down, either. Just another example of his deft, caring player management was ensuring that reserve scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies - the only still-inactive bench player very late in the final - got on the park for the last three or four minutes to get his worthy taste of the loftiest occasion of them all.
9 Having ever-smiling Schalk Brits in Japan
He had thought his retirement after an unusually lengthy career had already kicked in … but then Erasmus coaxed the eternally upbeat hooker (and wider utility factor, too) into his 2019 plans with a view to taking him to Japan. The 38-year-old Brits ended up becoming a popular, cheery, adventure-embracing squad figure - exactly the sort you need, on lengthy tour - and a “dirt-tracker” captain, into the bargain, in the pool match against Namibia.
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