Cape Town - Perhaps we shouldn’t expect full-on, All
Black-style player “sabbaticals” any time soon.
South African rugby, in fairness, has greater challenges
than New Zealand does, and the latter country’s national team benefits
enormously from central contracting of best players and a general “All Blacks
come first” insistence.
Rassie Erasmus simply doesn’t have that level of luxury when
it comes to use (just as often overuse, traditionally) of players, many of them
flogged near-cynically at Super Rugby level because of increasingly thin SA
franchise squads … but he is increasingly also operating as shrewdly as he can
when it comes to workloads of his key personnel.
The new Bok head coach is acutely aware that he needs to
restore a consistent winning culture as quickly as possible to re-seize public
confidence in the team, while simultaneously involved in a tricky juggling act
to ensure he sports all-important squad depth for the World Cup in Japan toward
the end of next year.
But it’s also a case of so far, so good.
He was prepared to take on the chin the severe likelihood
that he might suffer a game-one defeat –and he did - in that controversial
“Test” against Wales in distant Washington DC, putting out what was essentially
a B-team at best and exposing some especially callow troops to the
But then he got into more “premier” mode pretty swiftly and,
up to this point, has boxed very smartly in his use of players - the vast
majority of whom didn’t make the tiring trek to the United States - to ensure
an early sealing of the three-Test series against England.
There are sure to be (and have been already) some grumbles
among Western Cape fans, conscious of ticket-price challenges and the like,
about the way he has reshaped the team for the dead-rubber third clash at
Newlands on Saturday - including either omitting altogether or benching certain
players in noticeably rosy form.
But he seems committed to instilling a genuine “squad
culture” and broad hunger among his men, and I will be surprised, frankly, if
there is a glaring drop in Bok standards this weekend, even if desperate
England do claw back a much-needed win in conditions likely to be tailor-made
Erasmus is already showing a clearer willingness to base his
selections on requirements rather deeper down the rostering line - including
knowledge, remember, that his 2019 Test season, ahead of RWC, will be
significantly skinnier than the 2018 one.
Whereas this year he has had a full June programme, can
anticipate a maximum-version Rugby Championship and an end-of-year tour, next
year there in no June window, and only a half-sized (three-match) Championship
before the World Cup.
So he really has less time over the next 15 months than some
observers may realise to piece together his best 30-odd players for the assault
in the Webb Ellis Cup.
Why wouldn’t you, then, wish to exploit as best possible any
opportunity - like this Saturday’s marginally more “relaxed” fixture now - to
fiddle with combinations, more distant goals firmly in mind?
Exhaustion, gradually leading to lower levels of effectiveness,
has been a common problem in the recent past among many of South Africa’s best
players, who are more severely stretched at Super Rugby level than counterparts
Erasmus appears to be acutely aware of this, and I have had
a strong sense over the last couple of weeks that he has at least partly shaped
his Bok match-day squads with an eye on Super Rugby player loads immediately
before the England series, and also what’s looming in the competition for some.
For instance, young tighthead Wilco Louw may have been right
out of the match picture both this week and last, but the coach had also made
the valid point publicly that his game-time has been dangerously high for the
injury-challenged Stormers this season.
Having had at least a fortnight out of competitive duty may
well go a long way to restoring better physical and mental energy in the hefty
customer, who was a Test shining light toward the end of 2017.
Certain positional alliances remained untouched for this
weekend, like the loose trio of captain Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and
Again, though, there is method to any perceived “madness” in
that: Erasmus knows that Kolisi (particularly well due some time off) and Du
Toit are very close to a break anyway, as the Stormers are virtually certain
now not to be involved in the playoffs, and also have a bye on the last day of
Vermeulen has sweated blood for the cause, and dynamically
so, over the last two weekends, but the seasoned No 8 toughie should also get
some welcome feet-up time imminently as he isn’t with a SA franchise this year.
Then look at the selection this week of someone like
abrasive Sharks inside centre Andre Esterhuizen: he hasn’t had any role over
the past fortnight, after being one of few shining lights on debut against the
Welsh in Washington, so should be fully rested and zest-laden again for his
second crack at Test duty.
Deft player management … I know I am liking it.
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