Cape Town – The shape of the Springbok roster over the next few months is a positive as their inexperience-laden squad painfully learn the requirements for winning international rugby matches on softer, slower surfaces.
It is instructive, perhaps, that Rassie Erasmus’s rebuilding outfit, in recent weeks, have prevailed twice in rousing, fast-tempo matches against England in dry Highveld conditions – let’s face it, not the norm in global terms – and come a cropper twice, too, on more slippery, wet pitches against Wales in Washington DC and now the dead-rubber Test against England at Newlands.
Throughout the up-and-down period (though punctuated by pleasing achievement of the key business of series triumph over the English) Erasmus has tinkered with combinations with a view to the greater cause of a highly competitive showing at the 2019 World Cup in northern-hemisphere Japan.
It would be ungenerous of people, under the circumstances, to suddenly start pooh-poohing the Boks’ credentials just because they were well beaten by England, revelling in the wintry, home-like Capetonian backdrop, in the closing match of their tour on Saturday.
Erasmus has commendably taken the 25-10 reverse flush on the jaw, saying the Boks were “terrible” while captain Siya Kolisi also admitted at pitch-side afterwards that “we dropped our intensity”.
As noted by many critics after the Newlands result, South Africa played pronounced second fiddle in the areas that really matter on grim-weather days: the breakdown, general discipline, tactical kicking and in the penalty count, which England bossed by a wide margin.
When the World Cup comes along in some 15 months’ time, the autumnal conditions in Japan ought to be pretty mild, but some rain will also be a good likelihood if you examine meteorological trends for that country, hosting its maiden tournament.
Fortunately, the Boks should be much better versed as a unit in operating in that sort of environment by the time their assault on the Webb Ellis Cup comes along.
Whether it is raining or not, two of their three home fixtures in the next-up challenge, the Rugby Championship, will be at coastal venues: Durban for Argentina (their competition opener on August 18) and Port Elizabeth for Australia.
The Boks also play their away fixture against the All Blacks, for example, at Wellington, one of the most fickle, tempestuous places weather-wise in that country.
There is also the satisfaction of knowing that they shouldn’t be playing on blindingly quick pitches when a full end-of-year tour of Europe comes along in chilly November: they are down to play England, France, Scotland and Wales in that order.
So by the time the off-season finally comes around, Erasmus and his lieutenants should have a much better idea of the types of personnel who best suit the game-plan in a wide range of environments.
Saturday almost certainly only confirmed fears that someone like Elton Jantjies is palpably not suited to pulling the strings at flyhalf on a wet, windy day, even if the enigmatic player may still be deemed to have a role to play in some capacity in matches where the going is immeasurably better.
With their selection at Newlands, England also served up a strong reminder of the usefulness of effectively fielding “two flyhalves” – one at No 10, one at inside centre – as the Danny Cipriani/Owen Farrell alliance worked a charm for them on the day.
From a Bok point of view, it brings back into sharp perspective the possibility of someone like Handre Pollard, very comfortable playing a flat-lying game, being adaptable between the two berths.
For instance, if Pollard is the pivot on a soggy day, the Boks may yet have to try to coax controversial overseas-based Frans Steyn, somewhere down the line, to recommit to the national cause in the lead-up to the World Cup and be a solid option at twelve (or, indeed, fullback).
But if Erasmus does feel suitably inclined at some stage to give Pollard a crack at inside centre, the claims of Robert du Preez – yes, warts and all at this juncture in his flyhalf development – have to be re-evaluated as he is able to be “aggressive” in his channel.
Here’s another thought for future reference: if Eddie Jones could make a success of fielding the silky-skilled Cipriani at No 10 and more robust Farrell immediately outside him, maybe the Boks should contemplate (when fully fit again) the Stormers’ wunderkind Damian Willemse as an ally to Pollard – both could potentially inter-change during matches between pivot and the midfield.
Neither is a shrinking violet in contact situations, and remember that even in awful conditions a little bit of solo magic (think Cipriani’s cross kick for England’s try, Warrick Gelant’s deft grubber ahead of the Bok dot-down) can make a crucial difference.
These are learning times for the Springboks, both in personnel structure and playing styles and execution.
Let’s not let our knees jerk too violently after Newlands.
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