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
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.