Critical fortnight for Bok coach

2018-06-04 12:09
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo)

Johannesburg - Wales’ 22-20 win over the Springboks should not have any impact on the Test series against England that starts on Saturday - other than significantly ratcheting up the pressure that new coach Rassie Erasmus will be feeling as he heads into his first major series. 

Erasmus has effectively taken the reigns for six years but the next two weeks will be critical to how comfortable he gets to feel in the job during his crucial first year in charge.

If by the time the Boks leave Erasmus’ old home town of Bloemfontein after the second Test they have lost the series and he has suffered three losses on the bounce, he will be feeling intense heat from all angles and the tone for his tenure would have been set in the most negative way. 

He’s always been confident of beating England and it is the team coached by Eddie Jones that he’s spent most of his energy on when it comes to plotting, scheming and studying the opposition. Wales were never expected to field a first choice team made up of known players so the experimental or exhibition nature of the game in Washington meant it should not have taken up much of his time. 

With just two days to prepare his own completely new-look and, let’s be straight about it, once-off combination, everything really had to fit into place perfectly on the day for the outing to become the opportunity it was touted as rather than the money-spinner with potentially calamitous consequences it really was. 

It didn’t fit into place and when Erasmus saw the weather he probably knew straight away that he was in trouble. He’d selected a team of athletes for the trip and the tactical game that the wet conditions required wasn’t ideal for a squad that included no less than 13 new caps.

It was not the ideal scenario for new players and combinations to quickly find their feet, and the chances of success depended heavily on scrumming dominance, something that wasn’t allowed to happen in the early part of the game because the scrums were a shambles and just never set. 

The Welsh were also a make-shift combination but they did boast more continuity than the Boks and they also had more time to prepare for the game and featured more combinations that will be in action when their Test series starts against the Pumas this week.

The Boks never boasted a single combination that had played together before and predictably when that is the case there were discernible signs of improvement once the team started to settle in the second half. 

By then though they were behind the eight-ball and had to play catch up. They did well to catch Wales and overtake them with Robert du Preez’s penalty eight minutes from time, only for fate to conspire against them when the same player had the kicks charged down that cost the Boks the game. 

Had the Boks seen out those eight minutes and won the game we would be talking today about a poor performance that nonetheless achieved a positive objective by enabling the players to come through the pressure litmus test of having to come from behind to win the first international match that they would have played in.

Going forward, that experience could have been invaluable for those players who will be involved in Erasmus’ plans. 

But they didn’t hold out and the coach was honest enough to admit afterwards that because they lost, it was not really the opportunity he envisaged for the players. Winning is everything in Test match rugby regardless of the make-up of the team and Erasmus said when he took the job that he saw it as his task to prepare the team to win every game they played. 

Had they won we would not ask the question but because they lost, given the above, we have to ask it - why did Erasmus’ employers agree to a game like this one in Erasmus’ first match in charge? Warren Gatland has been in charge of Wales for more than 100 games so for him the timing of the experimental game was not such a problem, but a first game in charge is a big one for any coach. 

Further, while it is true that it is money that drives professional sport, shouldn’t we be asking if in the long-term the tallying up of defeats to teams like Wales isn’t off-setting the immediate financial gains by causing more and lasting long-term harm to the Bok brand? 

There were positives, such as the fact that the next time some of the players involved in Washington are called on to wear the Bok jersey it won’t be a new experience to them.

That should be quite soon for Warrick Gelant, who did well with his fielding of the contestable kicks when he was on the field as a replacement.

Other new players, such as Lions lock Marvin Orie, who poached two Welsh lineout throws during his time on the field, will look back on solid individual debuts, while others will look back on a learning experience that will occupy their minds for a long time and hopefully prove good for them. 

But the best thing Erasmus can do is forget about Washington as quickly as possible, and full marks to him for not talking about opportunities that were created and hidden positives that no-one else could see that some of his predecessors would have. Instead he said it hurt, and so it should. He said Wales deserved to win because they were hungrier in the end, he was right. 

What he does have now, and this he can console himself with, is double the amount of time to prepare his first choice team for England than he had with the second string side that went to America.

The Bok management will arrive home on an earlier flight on Monday to take charge of a team that has been shaping itself while the coaches were away and which should be a lot better prepared than the one that played in Washington. 

It is unlikely though to feature too many combinations that have played together before and should be significantly changed from the side that played the last Test match featuring first choice players, which would have been against Italy last November (the Welsh test, as matches against that nation tend to be, fell outside the international window). 

There shouldn’t be a single combination from November together for the England series, and that poses a massive challenge and in that sense Washington would have been a wake-up call. England have left some players home because of injury but they will be more settled than the hosts.

Read more on:    springboks  |  wales  |  rassie erasmus  |  rugby


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