Rassie Erasmus’ admission that the strongest available Springbok combination may only feature in the second Test of the series against England is cause for concern, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
England have opted to set up camp in Durban – despite the fact that the city won’t host a single Test this June – for the majority of the three-game series.
When that schedule was confirmed, one got the sense that coach Eddie Jones – who has taken hits from just about every British media outlet in the wake of a failed Six Nations campaign – was looking to avoid the limelight, and potential controversy, as much as possible.
And yet, Jones came out firing at the very first press conference of the tour, labelling Bruce Craig the ‘Donald Trump of rugby’ after the wealthy Bath boss dared to question the England coach’s extreme training methods. That statement made headlines around the world, and set the tone for what could be a fiery series both on and off the field.
The British rugby pages are inundated with stories about players who have fallen foul of Jones’ ‘tactical periodisation’ strategy. There’s a prevailing sense that Jones is pushing his players too hard, and that recent results – three successive Test defeats as well as a heavy loss to the Barbarians – highlight the need for change.
For all the complaints, Jones has brought a strong squad to South Africa. Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola are all expected to start against the Boks at Ellis Park this Saturday. These are the same players who starred for the British & Irish Lions in the famous series draw against New Zealand last year. The abrasive Billy Vunipola may also be unleashed on the Boks from the outset.
The Boks and South African rugby as a whole have bigger concerns than questionable training methods and irresponsible press conference statements.
There’s a feeling among some in South African media circles that Erasmus has been given everything that his predecessor, Allister Coetzee, was denied during the early days of his tenure. It’s true that SA Rugby did Coetzee no favours by appointing him and his coaching staff less than two months before the first Test of the 2016 season.
However, it’s also true that Coetzee enjoyed home advantage in his first four games. Those are matches Coetzee’s Boks were favourites to win, given Ireland’s injury setbacks ahead of that South African tour and Argentina’s poor record on the road.
Erasmus has been handed an unenviable challenge in his first two matches at the helm. If the game against Wales in Washington DC had been the sole focus, and indeed if the first game against England in Johannesburg had been the sole focus, then we would be having a different sort of conversation. The decision to stage both games within seven days of each another, however, has compromised the Boks’ ability to perform in either.
When Erasmus sent a second-string squad to the USA, many felt that the Boks were, at the very least, well placed to fire against England in the subsequent match. And yet, with only 15 players left to train in South Africa, there was always going to be some overlap with at least eight players who featured in Washington turning out for the ‘A’ team in Johannesburg the following week.
Not that the South African media has much sympathy for Erasmus’ predicament. At a press conference held in Johannesburg on Monday evening, several local reporters expressed their disappointment with the recent result against Wales as well as the quality of the team’s tactics.
When one considers who will feature for the hosts, and indeed who is likely to line up for the visitors, one begins to understand why Erasmus is under more pressure than Jones.
Erasmus dropped a bombshell on Monday when he confirmed that 2007 World Cup-winners Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn won’t be considered for the first Test due to their involvement in the recent French Top 14 final. The pair will report for duty at the Bok base in Johannesburg over the next two days.
He then attempted to explain why he was never going to field his preferred starting XV in the first two Tests of the season. It was a big admission ahead of the first game against England, a game that could shape the outcome of a crucial series for both teams.
Erasmus suggested that the Bok team that takes the field in the second Test in Bloemfontein will be closer to full strength. It’s a fair comment given the challenge of managing players shuttling to and from the USA, and in the context of Du Plessis and Steyn’s late arrival.
That said, it doesn’t change the fact that the Boks will go into the first Test with an unsettled, inexperienced, and largely susceptible lineup. They will go into that match as underdogs.
Where would another loss leave the Boks in the grand scheme of things? On Monday, World Rugby confirmed that South Africa had dropped to seventh in the rankings. Another defeat would see Erasmus starting his tenure with two straight losses – a first for a Bok coach in the professional era – and seriously compromise South Africa’s chances of winning the series against England.
On the other hand, if the Boks do manage to channel the energy of a partisan Ellis Park crowd this Saturday and secure a famous victory, they will be well placed to clinch the series in the second fixture at Free State Stadium.
It’s in the latter fixture where Erasmus may show his hand with regards to the first-choice line-up, and where we may start to see some evidence of synergy in certain combinations.
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) June 4, 2018
Photo: Duif du Toit /Gallo Images