The Springboks can be expected to offer more than a one-dimensional approach in the three-Test series against England, but the accuracy of execution will be key to their cause, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On what is expected to be a cool, but clear evening in Johannesburg on Saturday, the South African rugby community is set to hold its collective breath as the true Test business of June gets underway against England.
For a new-look side, there will certainly be some nerves, but so too in the coach’s box, where Rassie Erasmus will be praying for a successful start to his tenure.
The fact of the matter is that very little should really be read into last Saturday’s one-off Test against Wales in Washington, besides perhaps providing a few extra indicators as to which players are likely to swim or sink at international level.
Inevitably, though, that defeat has also added some extra pressure in the lead-up to this Saturday’s series-opener against England.
In fact, when Erasmus sat down to address the media just a few hours after arriving back in South Africa on Monday, the first question fired his way was related to whether he was ‘shocked’ or ‘surprised’ at how poorly the team had performed.
To his credit, Erasmus smiled his way through the press conference, taking it on the chin when asked whether the team’s IP (intellectual property) would be aligned by Saturday, while happily fielding several questions related to the Boks’ poorly-executed kicking game against Wales.
As I bumped into Erasmus as he left the conference room, a throwaway comment was pointed out along the lines of ‘it always hurts to lose’. It will hurt even more if the Boks lose this Saturday’s highly-anticipated clash at Ellis Park, where England have not managed a victory since 1972.
There are more than enough former Bok coaches who will be able to share with Erasmus about how quickly the tide of public and media opinion can change, but which up to this point has generally been particularly optimistic.
What will always serve as a saving grace of sorts is the brand of rugby the Boks produce, and whether it engenders a sense of national pride. For one, Erasmus’ predecessor could recount how the Boks were roundly booed at Ellis Park just two years ago as the team went into half-time trailing 19-3 against Ireland.
So what should be expected from the Boks in this three-Test series? Well, what can be deduced from the musings out of the team camp this week is that the Springboks are intent on offering more than just the ‘traditional strengths’ that England coach Eddie Jones is fully expecting his side to face.
On Tuesday, Duane Vermeulen spoke about surprising those who held perceptions of the Boks playing an ‘old style’ of rugby, while Faf de Klerk highlighted the talents of game-breakers such as Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi. Both pointed out that there has been a real sense of clarity and direction under the leadership of Erasmus.
Over the last few weeks, Erasmus has had to juggle preparations for the one-off Test against Wales and the serious business of playing England, but it’s already clear that he is his own man with his own plan. Indeed, when one looks at the starting lineup that fronted France almost exactly 12 months ago, Beast Mtawarira, Franco Mostert and Siya Kolisi look likely to be the sole survivors – albeit taking some injuries into account.
On Tuesday afternoon, it was also interesting to watch the Boks being put through their paces during a high-intensity training session at the plush surrounds of St Stithians College in Johannesburg.
Attack-minded Lions coach Swys de Bruin ran the backs through a sequence of drills, and there was no denying the signs of real dynamism and intent with which they went about their business. At one point, De Bruin was even moved to punch the air with a celebratory fist-pump and an exaltation of ‘flipping brilliant’ as one move came to fruition.
As is the case with any new-found ambition, though, there were also times when things didn’t go according to plan, and it can hardly be all that surprising when one considers that the combinations at 9-10, 12-13 and the back three are all set to be new to the Test arena on Saturday.
Erasmus has looked to reward domestic form in his selections, while aiming to provide a balance between exuberance and experience, but he also knows that a number of new combinations will have to be tested in the unforgiving international arena.
It’s likely to take some time for these partnerships to gel, and for the Boks to execute with the desired accuracy. However, there is reason to believe that any perceptions of a one-dimensional side may well be banished by the end of the three-Test series.
Photo: EPA/Kim Ludbrook