Springboks

Boks’ 2019 achievements rewarded astute management decision

2019-12-22 14:24
Rassie Erasmus (Getty Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Getty Images)

Cape Town - When you look at the latest World Rugby rankings, with South Africa firmly ensconced at No 1 and rightly so after a year where they achieved better results than any other international team and won the sport’s Holy Grail, it is hard to believe that it was just two years ago that the Springboks were assumed to be in crisis.

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The 2017 international season did produce better results for the South African national team than the first year of the World Cup cycle did, at least in terms of wins and losses. The ultimate humiliation of a 57-0 defeat suffered to the All Blacks in Albany, less than two and a half years ago, at least came in an away match. In 2016 the Boks also conceded 57 points while scoring 15, but that annihilation came at Durban’s King’s Park, and it came ahead of an end of year tour that featured losses to England, Italy and Wales.

It was probably at that point that the South African rugby bosses started to think that change was needed. And the determination to make the necessary change was not deflected by the marginal improvements that were shown in the Bok performances at the start of 2017. Even if Allister Coetzee was going to carry on as Bok coach, a change was needed to to the structure.

Roux and Alexander's intervention

The trip made by chief executive Jurie Roux and SARU president Mark Alexander to Ireland to convince Rassie Erasmus to come back to fill the position of national director of rugby preceded the 2017 end of year tour, which featured a 38-3 no-show against Ireland and another loss to Wales.

Getting Erasmus to come back would not have been an easy sell for the two administrators. Erasmus was happy coaching Munster, and so was his long-serving right hand man, Jacques Nienaber. But then perhaps Erasmus’ position of strength was a positive in the sense that he could insist on the powers that had stymied the ambitions of his predecessors.

It wasn’t an easy decision for Erasmus to make, but his heart was still with the Bok team he represented so illustriously as a player and he reckoned that it was now or never. In other words, if he left his return to South Africa any later, Springbok rugby would be beyond redemption.

Erasmus was initially going to work with Coetzee, effectively be his boss, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t possible to return to the formula of the two working together that was for a time successful at the Stormers.

Faced with that reality, Erasmus decided to take on the coaching reins himself for the first two years, in other words building up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, and then appoint a head coach to work with him. Those words are important, for there are still many who are misunderstanding Erasmus’ switch next year to being more focused on the directorship - it does not mean he is surrendering ultimate control of the team.

And by winning the World Cup and effectively saving South African rugby he has also earned the right to do what a director of rugby, almost by the role’s definition, has the authority to do, which is appoint his coach. There isn’t any kind of due process, as some have suggested should be the case, necessary in this instance. Erasmus has to have a coach who he has such a close understanding with that he is effectively like an extra limb. Which is why Nienaber is the likely head coach going forward.

The gambles of 2018 paid off

By Erasmus’ own admission though it could have turned out so differently. He is the first to acknowledge that he took some very brave gambles in 2018, his first year in charge, that paid off but could easily have gone the other way.

In addition to the necessary selection experimentation that gave him a better understanding of his resource base after starting late on the World Cup build-up, there was his calculated gamble to bank everything on achieving an away win over the All Blacks. When his team lost narrowly away to Argentina and Australia in his first Rugby Championship it upped the ante for a win in Wellington.

Erasmus insists now that he was being serious when he spoke at the time about that match being a make or break one for him and the team, and one that could effectively be the death-knell to his stint as Bok coach. But the pressure that was on him and his team going into that game at the Westpac Stadium was a good rehearsal for the pressure he faced 14 months later at the World Cup.

The epic victory over the All Blacks in Wellington, coming just a year after that annihilation in Albany, provided a timely boost to the confidence of not just the players but the South African rugby public. The narrow defeat to the Kiwis in Pretoria in the return match, one that the Boks dominated until the final minutes, did not dent that confidence.

However, it could still have gone pear-shaped for Erasmus after that. He will look back at the last gasp win scored by his team in Paris on the 2017 November tour, coming as it did just a week after a disappointing loss to England, as another decisive moment in his first year. Had the Boks lost that game to France they would have ended the year with a negative balance and Erasmus might have found it hard to argue the case for progress.

But history reflects that both the close games in Wellington and Paris did go his way, thus providing the necessary building block for a World Cup year that surely even exceeded his own expectations.

A hugely successful year

The Boks played 12 games in 2019, they lost just once, they won 10 and drew one, the draw coming in the follow up Wellington test against the All Blacks, when the hosts would have been desperate to avenge their defeat at the same stadium in 2018.

At the World Cup they scored the most points, the most tries and conceded the least points and the least tries. When they clinched the World Cup trophy by beating England so handsomely in the final in Yokohama, they became the first team to win the Rugby Championship and the Webb Ellis trophy in the same year.

Yes, let’s not forget that Rugby Championship win - although the competition was played over just one round this year, the Boks were comprehensive enough winners of the southern hemisphere version of the Six Nations for many overseas scribes to install them as World Cup favourites ahead of the tournament.

Indeed, one of the most bizarre features of the build-up to the final was how so many of the English scribes and television pundits who rated South Africa’s chances ahead of the World Cup wrote them off as no-hopers for the final. It beggared belief, for the statistics heading into the final, not just from the tournament itself but from what preceded it, were such that they had to have at the very least a 50/50 chance of success.

The rugby year started off for the Boks with Erasmus doing for the opening Championship clash with Australia in Johannesburg what he had done so often in 2018 - going in with what looked to most people as a second string selection in a quest to have a fresh team for the clash with the All Blacks on New Zealand soil just a week later.

But if it was a gamble it paid off and Erasmus probably knew the history that reflects that Ellis Park is a venue that appears to strike mortal fear into any Wallaby player. Not that the Australians played particularly poorly that day, and there were a few opportunities that they wasted in the first half that, had they been taken, could have turned it into a different game.

The match though proved the launch board for one of the new players, scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, and his two tries, followed up a week later with the score that secured the draw in Wellington, confirmed depth in a position where previously Erasmus was struggling.

Right decision to target Championship trophy

There were two weeks between the All Black game and the final Championship test against Argentina, and Erasmus made the right decision in selecting his best team and going all out for the trophy. Not only did the decider status given to that game give the Boks another dress rehearsal opportunity for the World Cup play-off phase, winning a trophy, their first in the southern hemisphere competition since 2009, increased the Bok confidence.

The warm-up game organised for two weeks ahead of the World Cup was another masterstroke on the part of Erasmus and the SARU management. Not only did it give the Boks the opportunity to get an early taste of Japanese conditions, it also removed any potential unknown quantity, and exorcised any ghosts lingering after the infamous defeat in Brighton in 2015, from the hosts, Japan.

The Boks weren’t to know it then, but this became particularly useful when they ended up facing the World Cup hosts in the quarterfinal.

Learning from mistakes

At the time, everything was being done in preparation for the seismic World Cup opener against the reigning champions, the All Blacks, in Yokohama. Erasmus acknowledges he got a few things wrong in the build-up to that game which he rectified later in the tournament, and had the All Blacks made it to the World Cup final, the Boks were confident they would have beaten them.

Certainly for much of that opening game in Yokohama the Boks showed they had the firepower. They were undone by a seven minute patch where they appeared to lose concentration, as well as some rather dubious refereeing calls from Frenchman Jerome Garces, who was a different animal in the Pool game to the one the Boks encountered when he refereed their semi-final and the final.

The Boks were never going to be troubled by any other team in their Pool, but what the rest of the phase did do was settle a few things for Erasmus, perhaps the most notable being his decision to place a strong emphasis on sustained forward power and intensity in every match by going for a six/two split between forwards and backs on the bench.

It was against Italy, a game he was worried about just because it was effectively a knock-out game for his team, that he first tried it, and the sight of the Bok forwards, with Lood de Jager in the vanguard, marching the Italians back several metres with their driving mauls will long linger in the memory.

With a pack like that of course the Boks were going to rely on it to overcome Japan in the quarter-final, and perhaps a lot of overseas critics misunderstood Erasmus’ method. Even back home the Boks were being criticised for being one-dimensional, scrumhalf Faf du Plessis for kicking too much, but they were the tactics required against those specific opponents.

He was pilloried for his team’s tactics in the semi-final against Wales in particular, but again he was taking flak for what was effectively a masterstroke. With so much kicking in the game, the Welsh defence was never allowed to be a factor in the game, and that counted positively for the Boks when they had to assess the physical cost during their short six day turn-around ahead of the final.

They fired when it really mattered

Had the Boks been caught up in a physical, bruising semi-final they may not have been quite as effective as they were when it really mattered - in the World Cup final at Yokohama’s International Stadium.

And what a day that was for the Boks and for all of South Africa. England had shocked the All Blacks a week earlier with the strength of their game but it didn’t take long for it to become clear that it wouldn’t be the case against the highly physical Boks.

Although Bongi Mbonambi and Lood de Jager were both off injured before the game reached the 20th minute, the damage had already been done by the juggernaut Bok scrum. With Erasmus bringing in several little innovations that surprised England, it was quintessential subdue and penetrate rugby, with the penetration coming through the skill with which Lukhanyo Am set up Makazole Mapimpi’s try, the first ever try scored by the Boks in a World Cup final (the late Ruben Kruger did score one in 1995 but it was disallowed by the referee).

Then just to rub salt into English wounds up popped Cheslin Kolbe, one of Erasmus’ most inspired selections, to cross for the second try and push the Bok lead to 20 points, one of the biggest winning margins in a World Cup final.

It meant that the South African celebrations could start a good few minutes ahead of the final whistle, and boy did those celebrations continue into that night in Tokyo and when the Boks arrived home to complete their trophy tour.

Individual recognition

Pieter-Steph du Toit was rightly anointed as the World Player of the Year at the World Rugby awards ceremony in Tokyo the night after the final, and Erasmus was confirmed as the Coach of the Year, and in the weeks that have followed the World Cup all sorts of accolades have been heaped on the skipper, Siya Kolisi.

It was all a far cry from what would have been expected when Bok rugby was threatening to implode in the latter half of 2016 and into 2017. If there was an administrator of the four year World Cup cycle award given, or an acknowledgement of the best decision made by a rugby boss, the two men who flew to Ireland to speak to Erasmus in 2017 would surely be the leading candidates. The Springbok renaissance started then.

SPRINGBOK RESULTS FROM 2019

South Africa 35 Australia 17

New Zealand 16 South Africa 16

Argentina 13 South Africa 46

South Africa 24 Argentina 18

Japan 7 South Africa 41

South Africa 13 New Zealand 23

South Africa 57 Namibia 3

South Africa 49 Italy 3

South Africa 66 Canada 7

Japan 3 South Africa 26

South Africa 19 Wales 16

South Africa 32 England 12

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