For the first time since Rassie Erasmus took charge in 2018, the Springboks appear to be behind the curve, writes ZELIM NEL.
Back-to-back losses against the Wallabies, ranked seventh in the world rankings prior to the teams meeting in Gold Coast, have effectively scrapped South Africa’s chances of backing up a series victory over the British & Irish Lions with the 2021 Rugby Championship title.
Heading into the hugely significant 100th Test against New Zealand, the world champions trail the unbeaten All Blacks by 10 log points after four matches.
While there is no reason for Bok supporters to panic, there are many reasons to express concern over two benign performances in Australia.
Erasmus’ reign began in June 2018 with him sending a B team on a public relations mission to Washington DC where the Boks went down 22-20 against Wales. One week later, it all made sense when Sbu Nkosi scored two tries and Handre Pollard kicked 17 points as the A team edged England at Ellis Park.
This became a pattern of Erasmus’ first season spent salvaging the Boks – every loss was generally backed up by an impressive win and always validated by clear gains, either tactically or on the depth chart.
After the second-stringers went down 25-10 against England at Newlands, the team rebounded to smash Argentina in Durban. And after the replacements suffered a similar loss against the Wallabies in Brisbane, the headliners edged the All Blacks in Wellington.
The Boks were beaten 23-13 in their 2019 Rugby World Cup opener against New Zealand, but that turned out to be the only loss of the season as South Africa famously smashed England in the final. Despite all the trepidation about a 600-day pause between that final and the first Test against the Lions, the Boks recovered from a narrow loss against the tourists to win the series.
Between June 2018 and August 2021, South Africa always looked to be in control and one step ahead of the game.
The highlights included Faf de Klerk’s innovative role as a blitzer in a suffocating defence, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit acquiring elite status as an industrial blindside flank, a heavy bench of closers dubbed the ‘Bomb Squad’, Cheslin Kolbe conjuring tries out of nothing, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo teaming up in the game’s best power-and-panache centre tandem, and the workaholic efforts of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert in an almost unstoppable maul.
So slick was the system that the Boks didn’t seem to miss a beat when an overhauled team was deployed against Argentina in the Rugby Championship opener, or a week later after another raft of changes.
All of that changed in Australia when the cogs jammed, the innovation and edge evaporated and the Boks, by their own admission, were outmuscled and outplayed.
Where Erasmus’ calling card in 2018 and 2019 was that he seem to have anticipated the obstacles and shrewdly preempted them, it was evident in Australia that South Africa had been caught flat-footed and fresh out of ideas.
No doubt, the injury absence of Du Toit and then Lood de Jager and Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg forced the Boks into making changes. But where unexpected selections have hit the bullseye in the past, Jasper Wiese has failed to launch as Duane Vermeulen’s heir, and a lockless bench loaded with groundhogs Marco van Staden and Kwagga Smith has been a dud.
Kolbe’s injury withdrawal boosted Nkosi into the run-on team but he’s looked a shadow of the fiery finisher that burst on to the scene in 2018.
De Allende and Am made uncharacteristic errors in the Queensland Tests while fullback Willie le Roux is stuck in a slump of form. And though De Klerk put in a delightful grubber for Am’s try at the Suncorp, his defensive reputation has taken a hit over the past fortnight.
Mostert admitted after the Gold Coast defeat that the Wallabies were hungrier on the day, and he and skipper Siya Kolisi promised a focused response in Brisbane that was not backed up.
Pollard responded to a 58% goal-kicking strike rate to slot four of five in Brisbane, but his defensive errors played a part in two of Australia’s four tries. This after South Africa only conceded two tries in three Tests against the Lions.
In the first two seasons under Erasmus, the Boks seemed to have more fingers than there were holes in the dam wall. The same cannot be said of where the world champions find themselves now, having suffered two losses against Australia in the space of one week for the first time since 1993.
While it’s not the first time the Boks have been at a crossroads since 2018, there’s a perceptible lack of direction as they prepare for an especially meaningful showdown with the All Blacks.
Rally to chase New Zealand to the final whistle and a semblance of confidence will be restored; clinch an unexpected win and the losses against Australia will fade into a distant memory; capitulate in another lacklustre effort and the sirens will begin to wail.