Cape Town - At completion of the 2018 Rugby Championship: that is the best bend in the road to begin most intensively assessing whether Rassie Erasmus is guiding the embattled Springboks toward a tangible new dawn.
Perhaps many South Africans differ, but I cannot suppress a sense of a bad moon rising over the Boks for the remainder of the June international period.
READ: The Great Debate: Will it be England or the Boks?
Yes, I am just beginning to lean uncomfortably toward the possibility of old fox Eddie Jones engineering an historic - though probably very narrow if so - England away series triumph over the next few weeks.
In a nutshell, things could just get worse for the Boks before they start to get better.
That is said while steadfastly trying not to be influenced by events in Washington DC, Erasmus’s winless first assignment in charge.
It always seemed a distracting, counterproductive exercise and his hugely experimental combination, at the end of the day, were a little unfortunate to lose the grim faraway spectacle against equally dog’s-breakfast Wales.
The controversial extra fixture only aggravated what is always a particularly tough June “window” spell (a deceptive label, I’ve always thought, after months of Super Rugby slog) for first international activity of the year.
It is dreadfully difficult for the Boks to hit the ground running, as South African players in increasingly thin regional squads are overplayed in the franchise competition to a far greater extent than their All Black-linked counterparts, for example, and hardly hale and hearty to an optimal extent when the Tests come around.
Considering that selection was rightly considered one of the key flaws of the two-year Allister Coetzee tenure, Erasmus was always going to have to strip down the Bok machine and reassemble it with a formidable array of different personnel as he seeks ideal blends and balances.
He’s had to do it twice, too, considering the unorthodox Wales once-off and now a need to put out a similarly, vastly shaken-up XV for the first Test against England at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.
Will the Bok side that turns out in Johannesburg, at least initially, look almost as unfamiliar to each other as the group in Washington did?
That danger does exist, I feel, and England getting on the front foot in the hostile atmosphere of Ellis Park would represent an enormous stepping stone to a series kill by the tourists. (I am not saying with any certainly that will happen, but it might.)
Listening to some Duane Vermeulen audio from a press briefing this week, the big, seasoned No 8 effectively reminded of how foreign, in a sense, he would find some of the new (to him), home-based personnel in the Bok matchday squad.
“I’ve been spending some time trying to get to know new guys … what makes them tick, both on the field and away from it,” the senior figure said.
Vermeulen, remember, had already been plying his own professional trade abroad well before the likes of Aphiwe Dyantyi, S’bu Nkosi or even co-forwards like RG Snyman and Jean-Luc du Preez came into their own in his homeland as credible Test candidates.
It was certainly a sage reminder that it will be a bonus if the Boks manage to “click” with any speediness, especially as far as the various positional alliances are concerned, in game one or even by the second Test in Bloemfontein.
For all those reasons, I believe with some conviction that Erasmus will justify skirting truly harsh or over-emotional critical appraisal even if the Boks, in a necessarily painstaking regrowth phase, were to surrender this series.
The time to start worrying is if they underperform too notably, all over again, in the bigger-barometer Rugby Championship this year.
That tournament at least provides, through its mercifully more drawn-out rostering composition, an infinitely kinder opportunity for the various coaching staffs of the competing nations to sort wheat from chaff.
In addition, the way Super Rugby 2018 is going from a domestic point of view, not too many Springbok players may still be involved in that competition’s knockout phase beyond its quarter-finals on July 21 (quite a few aren’t going to sniff the finals series at all).
That date is exactly four weeks shy of the start of the Rugby Championship (the Boks play Argentina in Durban on August 18), potentially allowing Erasmus an attractive amount of time to work on conditioning and other areas for his core personnel by then.
During the six-match tournament itself, there are also two traditional “off” weekends for all teams … another opportunity to improve synergies and familiarity, and generally plan with more diligence and breathing space than happens in the June spell.
Erasmus deserves, I think, some slackness on the line throughout the next nine matches: three England, six Championship.
It’s if the Boks remain stubbornly floundering after those nine games (ending October 6; All Blacks at Loftus) that we can reel him in, and call him to acidic account in the same way we often did his predecessor “Toetie” …
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