Springbok brand needs a lift … fast!

2018-06-04 13:10
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo)

Cape Town – Were you still awake at halftime?

That appeared a reasonably common, bitter query among Springbok fans in the aftermath of Saturday’s unpalatable result and performance in the dubiously-scheduled first Test of the 2018 season against Wales in neutral Washington DC.

Certainly it was the first question I was asked by a clearly miffed, cynical surgeon I visited early on Monday.

“I had to be … it’s my bread and butter,” I replied with tongue only halfway into the cheek he was scrutinising after a small procedure performed on it a few days earlier.

In truth, of course, a 23:00 kick-off in SA time is a challenging, unfriendly television slot to a lot of people, regardless of whether champagne rugby quickly takes root. (It rather abjectly didn’t. And in the Springboks’ case … again.)

This unorthodox opening fixture was always going to be an uphill exercise for new coach Rassie Erasmus, considering the ludicrously limited opportunity for proper preparation and various other inhibiting factors at play considering the bigger, more extended task immediately ahead against England.

I stand by my long-held conviction that the game in the United States should really have been branded a “friendly international” or something not dissimilar, rather than given full-blooded Test status.

But whatever it was, it ended up being a virtually unmitigated horror show in entertainment-level terms.

Greasy, muggy conditions explained a certain tactical conservatism from both vastly experimental teams … but it wasn’t exactly a quagmire, either, and many of us have witnessed infinitely better rugby spectacles at frigid New Zealand and other stadiums with whistling wind and driving rain.

The whole, torpid exercise really ended up being a challenge over which hotchpotch combination was … well, less inept.

For the record, I also feel in the final analysis that the “less bad” team lost: to their credit, and more as a result of better urgency than any special chutzpah, the Boks appeared to have gained reasonably decisive second-half ascendancy until the sadly pivotal Robert du Preez charge-down moment.

Had South Africa won 20-17, from their 3-14 interval deficit, instead of botched it 22-20, much of the cynicism about their showing might well have stayed more muzzled.

Instead, the very outcome against a rugby nation we used to beat almost automatically meant the dubious calibre and style – that word is used especially cautiously -- of the Bok performance would inevitably be subjected to scalding public and pundit scrutiny.

And why not?

Although Erasmus deserves substantially more time before his battleplan is fairly judged, the harsh truth was that on Saturday the raw Bok side put out only seemed to echo the joylessness and lack of artistry, continuity or gumption of so much of the prior Allister Coetzee tenure.

It was filled with young personnel, and one reasonable expectation for a decent spectacle in such cases is that callow sportspeople tend not to be shy to express or assert themselves, even if it means departing just a little audaciously, single-mindedly from script at times.

But independence of thought, or sudden resort to crowd-pleasing, daring instinct, somehow seemed a million miles away from the minds of most of the players on view.

The Boks debatably only replicated, all too often, the morbid SA fascination of the past few years with box-kicking (or read: the conversion of known, hard-won possession into a 50-50 aerial lottery a little further up the park, if we are even so lucky).

Considering how Erasmus has – correctly, commendably – emphasised so strongly in the earliest days of his tenure that South African aerial play has slipped some distance behind that of certain premier nations, it was surprising how doggedly the formula was stuck to against Wales, with exasperating turnover the major hallmark.

The policy can be effective, of course, if executed well (note: a freaky Folau in your ranks helps) but when it produces low returns and is overdone, it provokes understandable ridicule about how little it provides to the far from unimportant matter of ensuring an acceptable spectacle to the paying customers.

Certainly it does nothing to lessen a suspicion that the Boks are at - or very near - an all-time low for genuine individual “star appeal” in their ranks.

HO de Villiers, Mannetjies Roux, Danie Gerber, Carel du Plessis, Bryan Habana … their deftness of hand or foot and pure determination not to be too suffocated by template only enhanced the Springbok name and its allure.

Absurdly often in more recent times, collective Bok showings have only sparked acidic debate along the lines of “so where does THAT one rank in the gallery of awful Springbok performances?”.

Regrettably, Saturday was a seriously viable addition to the list, so not the kind of start Erasmus needed in a domestic rugby climate already punctuated by disconcertingly low, quite morbid sentiment.

If he sees off England over the next few weeks -- whether by 2-1 or a sweep -- the new mastermind will be excused, I imagine, excessive scrutiny over “how” series success was achieved.

But for the sake of the increasingly battered Springbok brand, someone – and fairly soon – need to find a key to the national team not only winning consistently, but doing so in suitably exhilarating fashion as well.

Or else you can be pretty sure a deeper haemorrhaging of faith and devotion will follow … whether the Boks are starting matches at 17:05 or two bloody thirty in the morning, frankly.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  rassie erasmus  |  rugby


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