Rassie Erasmus’ investment in a wider group of players will reap significant benefits in the short and long term, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Rassie Erasmus – as well as the SA Rugby officials who handed him a six-year contract and the room to implement his master plan – deserve credit for the foundations that have been laid over the past two seasons. The development of several outstanding options in just about every position is something to celebrate in the context of what we have witnessed over the past four years.
It’s hard to believe that only two years have passed since Allister Coetzee’s side suffered a 57-0 hammering at the hands of the All Blacks in Albany. The 2017 season also witnessed a record defeat to Ireland in Dublin, a loss that led many to mourn the end of South Africa’s physical aura. Player morale hit rock bottom on that four-match tour to Europe.
A couple of days after the 38-3 loss in Dublin, I went to watch the Boks train at a ground on the outskirts of Paris. A senior member of the management team made his way over to the sideline to take me up on something I had written about the selections.
‘Who else is there?’ he stated, more than asked, as we discussed problem positions like fullback, inside centre and scrumhalf. When I mentioned a few alternatives, he shook his head and then proceeded to explain why my demands weren’t realistic.
That tour ended with another disappointing defeat to Wales. After the post-match press conference at the Millennium Stadium, I caught up with Coetzee in the corridor and asked him about where this team was headed. That conversation left me more worried than angry, as the head coach suggested that the players involved were the best and the team could not get any stronger.
Fast forward to the present. We’ve learned that the first-choice players who were backed in the Coetzee era – Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Willie le Roux, Malcolm Marx and many others – actually have another gear or two. Since Erasmus came to power, we’ve seen Duane Vermeulen, Faf de Klerk and others returning from overseas. We’ve witnessed 23 players making their Test debuts over a period of 18 Tests.
Clearly there are alternatives and the side can be strengthened.
We’ve reached the point in the four-year cycle where the focus shifts to the World Cup. Erasmus, however, has always given the impression that he is building a team for the long term.
On numerous occasions, he has made mention of the British & Irish Lions series in 2021 as well as the World Cup in 2023. Erasmus, as the director of rugby, wants the Boks to be in a position to succeed in 2019, 2021 and 2023, and for South African rugby to regain its reputation as a leading rugby nation.
Erasmus has spread the net wide in the lead-up to the tournament in Japan. As many as 58 players were used from the first Test against Wales in Washington last June to the game against Argentina in Pretoria this past August.
Four fullbacks, seven wing options, six centres, three flyhalves and five scrumhalves were used in the back division. Six hookers, nine props, and seven locks were used up front and 13 players featured in the back row. Many starting combinations were trialled and not just for the sake of the 2019 World Cup, but also for the big matches and tournaments leading up to the global showpiece in 2023.
The Boks recently clinched the Rugby Championship title to end their 10-year trophy drought. There’s now reason to believe they will topple a big team or two at the World Cup in Japan.
There’s also reason to believe the best is yet to come in 2020 and beyond. While Duane Vermeulen, Beast Mtawarira and Frans Steyn may be entering the twilight of their careers, the bulk of the Bok squad will be available for the foreseeable future.
Members of the leadership core, such as Kolisi, Du Toit, Eben Etzebeth and Faf de Klerk, should still be around in 2023. Other key players like Handre Pollard, Marx, Lukhanyo Am, Jesse Kriel and Lood de Jager will be 30 or younger by the time the team gets to France. What’s more, S’bu Nkosi, Herschel Jantjies, Warrick Gelant, RG Snyman and Damian Willemse may feature at the World Cup in 2027.
The Boks will need some luck to triumph in Japan. It’s fair to say that some hard work lies ahead for Erasmus and the folk at SA Rugby who are genuinely concerned about fixing the local structures.
However, if the first two years of Erasmus’ tenure as director of rugby are anything to go by, South African fans should feel optimistic about the future.
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