Springboks

Rassie’s year one: How we scored him

2018-11-26 14:22
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - He, and we, can snap the files shut ... Rassie Erasmus has completed his maiden season as head coach of the Springboks.

If you chose to equate it with a passenger being quizzed by the person meeting him or her at the airport after a long-haul flight (remember that he oversaw 14 Test matches), the answer might be something like: “Hmm, bumpy ride at times, disturbed sleep … but some fine service when the trolley came through the aisles.”

So just how accurately, if you wished to put a figure to it, can you assess Erasmus’s seldom dull first year?

I though the best method might be to break it down into five categories, give him a mark out of 10 for each and then combine them to give him a definitive percentage tally.

Here goes, then ...

2018 performance

Let’s cut straight to the chase: for a supposed superpower, South Africa’s precisely 50 percent win-loss record for 2018 still demonstrates a team punching a fair way below its most desired potential.

The Boks seemed to take a backward step soon after every forward one; they had three instances of winning games back to back, but also two of losing twice on the trot, which summed up their lingering inconsistency.

Then again, the final tally for Erasmus’s first year at the tiller looks a lot better than Allister Coetzee’s maiden year in 2016, when the Boks won a paltry four of 12 Tests (33.33 percent).

But the predecessor also stiffened his results act in his second - and ironically final - season, when he won seven of 13 Tests (there were also two draws against the Wallabies) for a win percentage of almost 54.

There are some mitigating factors in Erasmus’s unremarkable year-one record on paper: a fairly meaningless, low-intensity and second-string dominated first-match reverse on neutral turf in the United States, a dead rubber defeat to England in the Capetonian mud after two pleasing, prior series-sealing wins on the Highveld, and of course the Owen Farrell furore that probably cost SA a win at Twickenham much more recently.

Almost certainly the worst two performances by the Boks were the comprehensive 32-19 loss to Argentina in Mendoza and then the campaign-closing 20-11 loss to bogey team Wales in Cardiff on Saturday – hardly the ideal way to “remember” the national side over the summer months.

But it is also very true to remind that the Boks experienced none of the violent, 0-57 type of hammerings that were features of Coetzee’s two-year stint.

Which also brings us conveniently to how infinitely better they fared this season in the pair of bilateral clashes with the still pace-setting All Blacks: a famous, bloody-minded victory against the odds and flow of possession in Wellington, and a desperately narrow, heart-breaking defeat at Loftus when they, by quirky contrast, had been markedly the better side for most of the clash.

Those two pulsating, educative fixtures, by my book, justify cranking Erasmus to a little above a 50 percent score in this category …

Rating: 5.5/10

Selection

It’s tough taking the reins midway through a cycle to a World Cup - rather than at the outset of one, when you have significantly greater liberty for experimentation and patience.

So Erasmus has been on a “rush job” to prepare the Boks suitably for RWC 2019, and like all modern Bok coaches he also has to be driven by certain political considerations and the hampering factor of so many strong-calibre professionals from our shores now being based in foreign climes.

I feel he largely struck a deft enough balance between continuity/stability and the need to tweak his mix from time to time with longer-term goals in mind.

He’s gone a bit left-field at times, to decidedly mixed reaction … like in involving the 37-year-old Schalk Brits in his plans and suddenly, recently, also falling back on Gio Aplon (36) for broader squad purposes.

But Erasmus couldn’t be hugely faulted in his quest to bolster or maintain depth in many positions: there are several, especially in the tight five, where players can drift in or out quite seamlessly without disrupting or weakening the unit at all.

He was also partial to rewarding “little guys” (Cheslin Kolbe comes to mind, and he’s been pleasingly sprightly) who might not have got a look-in from some prior coaches.

The coach also made immense strides in burying the big departmental weakness demonstrated in the Coetzee era: the back three, where Aphiwe Dyantyi proved a revelation as an attacking weapon and S’bu Nkosi (albeit impeded by various injury issues) similarly made a home of the No 14 jersey when fit.

And although his predecessor, in fairness, had set the ball rolling with the restoration of Pieter-Steph du Toit - perhaps the Bok player of the season? - to blindside flank from lock, Erasmus carried forward the initiative with some gusto, and striking success.

Rating: 6/10

Game-plan/playing style

Broadly, Erasmus’s Boks could be said to have cleared a fair bit of the fog of featurelessness, if you like, on this front that was a hallmark for rather too much of the Coetzee tenure.

There was a stronger sense of urgency, direction and purpose to the Boks this year, after an especially haphazard two years preceding it - they gave a better impression that, on a really good day, they might have the ingredients to knock over just about anybody in a truly red-letter Test match.

Erasmus almost always put together combative, industrious forward units - up there with any of the planet, I believe - even if the scrumming probably headed encouragingly northward on the graph while lineout standards slipped a bit from those of the “Toetie” era.

He was prepared to sacrifice (certainly the lion’s share of the time) the presence of a genuine “fetcher”, favouring a more blanket, universal approach toward stealing and slowing, although the formula was exposed to a noticeable degree in the season-ending reverse in Cardiff.

From time to time, the Bok backline came to light from set moves, albeit probably not enough to consistently please purists, and there was a tedious over-reliance - especially when Faf de Klerk was the No 9 - on box-kicking in certain Test matches; the Boks still aren’t the best of ball-winners in the air, which doesn’t help.

Midfield remains an area where the Boks lack proper punch: the De Allende-Kriel alliance too seldom exhibited penetrative qualities as individuals or when it came to the calibre (you might add in levels of desire) of their passing/off-loading, which meant Bok stealth in the wider berths was vexingly negated a lot of the time.

Erasmus’s Boks usually didn’t struggle to get regularly enough into the try column on firmer, faster pitches - particularly at home and in the southern hemisphere as a whole – but that also came, too often, to the detriment of suitably adhesive own defence.

A major problem area to be addressed in the lead-up to the World Cup next year is the inexplicable tendency of certain outside backs to rush out of alignment when the Boks are under the cosh - it is leaking just too many scores to the opposition.

Rating: 5.5/10

Transformation

Given the publicly-stated objective by SA Rugby of being in a position to field a Bok team with 50 percent representation by players of colour by RWC 2019, it is a statistical fact that they still fell noticeably short of making it happen during 2018.

According to our barometer kept by editor Garrin Lambley throughout the 14-match campaign, the Boks peaked - at least in strict match-day terms, as opposed to broader squad - at 47.83 percent in game one against Wales in Washington DC, a dubious exercise where both teams fielded highly experimental line-ups.

Still, Erasmus was fully entitled under the circumstances (as he cocooned his “first team” for the opening home Test against England only a week later) to take a liberal look as some fringe or especially youthful options, regardless of colour - which he did.

The Boks played three other Test matches during the 2018 roster where they reached roughly 45 percent in black player participation (so very close to the stated target) … but also several in which the tally dipped into the mid-thirties.

Those included all four matches on the end-of-year tour, although the coach could argue that he was hamstrung by the unavailability of men who might have been pretty front-of-mind like Tendai Mtawarira and Lukhanyo Am.

Also, devotion to transformation arguably shouldn’t be determined purely by figures, should it?

Erasmus appointed a black African captain, Siya Kolisi, a move that earned widespread praise and probably went quite some way to seducing support from hitherto wavering quarters, and also unearthed some real gems in players from previously disadvantaged backgrounds who became core factors - like Dyantyi and Nkosi.

Embrose Papier showed pleasing signs of potential in the problem berth of scrumhalf toward year’s end, while the coach also gently advanced the claims of someone like 20-year-old wunderkind Damian Willemse, suggesting the versatile back-liner will shift even closer to regular match-day squad involvement next year.

Dealing with the unique “numbers” demands of Bok rugby is no straightforward task but Erasmus probably had a satisfactory, sincere enough handle on it, even if there is likely to be ongoing disagreement across the ideological spectrum of observers …

Rating: 6/10

Public relations

Erasmus surprised me a little here … and all favourably.

He entered the formidably demanding Bok job with a reputation for being reasonably averse - almost but never quite to the point of apparent reticence at times - to the media spotlight.

In previous head coaching/directorship posts (certainly on SA soil), Erasmus had generally preferred to go about his business in a sort of quiet solitude, not often peeping out over his laptop or from his study to engage with scribes and pundits: it left you wondering if he harboured a bit of paranoia, despite his comfortably affable enough nature and body language when required or willing to.

But there is no hiding place as Springbok coach … and, give him his due, he seemed to fully appreciate that.

For pretty much the whole of his Bok tenure so far, Erasmus has gone refreshingly further than simply talk in bland or cautious platitudes at media engagements.

He has spoken with sometimes startling openness in explaining selections, form- and ability-related aspects of various players and strategies, including his use of players off the bench, or in rotational terms.

Indeed, he has taken any personal errors at times so willingly on the chin that he has, on occasion, been unnecessarily harsh on himself.

There have been ups and downs, yet Erasmus has stayed agreeably honest and candid. More of the same in 2019 would be well appreciated in the media/public world, I’m sure.  

Rating: 6.5/10

OVERALL SCORE: 29.5/50 = 59 percent. That might seem a tad generous to more hard-line critics, who are entitled to feel differently. Yes, he also scored highest in this exercise in maybe the least relevant category (the last one).

But my own instincts are nevertheless driven by a pretty steadfast feeling that things, however painstakingly at this point, ARE getting better.

And that’s not the worst bottom line, is it?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  rassie erasmus  |  rugby

 

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