Captain Siya Kolisi and coach Rassie Erasmus are thrilled to hear that people are talking about the Springboks again after a difficult couple of years for the team, reports JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
The Boks are back. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said as much after South Africa beat New Zealand in Wellington last year, and then pushed the No 1 side all the way in the follow-up match in Pretoria.
Erasmus’ side has since gone on to win the 2019 Rugby Championship. There’s now reason to believe that they will surprise a couple of the more fancied teams at the World Cup in Japan.
Who could have predicted such a turnaround?
In 2016 came a series of humiliating defeats – and not only by the All Blacks, but by the likes of Argentina, Wales and Italy. In 2017 the Boks suffered record losses to New Zealand and Ireland. In the wake of the latter, many foreign critics lamented the end of an aura.
Erasmus couldn’t help but smile when he broached the subject of the team’s improvement at the World Cup squad announcement on Monday. For the past few weeks, there’s been a buzz on social media, on various websites and in the newspapers about the makeup of the 31-man group.
According to the Bok coach, the fact that the debate and even the criticism is so widespread shows that the team is heading in the right direction.
The fact of the matter is that many – including some critics and fans based abroad – have noted the rise of Erasmus’s side. There’s a feeling that the Boks will be a force to be reckoned with in Japan.
‘People are talking about the Springboks again,’ he said. ‘There is positive stuff and negative stuff. They’re debating team selections and game plans and talking about who should play wing and so on.
‘I love it. Suddenly there are expectations.
‘We are also talking about those things within the group,’ Erasmus added. ‘We have a saying in the team, “Let the main thing stay the main thing”. That is playing and training well. That’s what we should be good at. I’m not saying we are there yet, but we are trying to achieve that.
‘The expectation is now there for us to overturn the [2015 loss] to Japan and to do well against the All Blacks [in the first World Cup pool match]. It makes me nervous, but it also makes me helluva proud because of the opportunity.’
Kolisi, who was part of the Bok set-up in 2016 and 2017, feels that Erasmus has been instrumental in the turnaround.
‘We’ve always said that the ultimate dream is to win the World Cup,’ the Bok captain said. ‘That’s been the message since Coach [Erasmus] started with us.
‘He’s taught us that the most important thing is the Springboks. It’s not about us as individuals. The way we’ve worked over these past two seasons … it’s like he’s taken us to another level.
‘Having a guy like [fitness coach] Aled Walters involved has also made a difference. The only thing Coach wants from us is to work as hard as we can. He tells us not to worry about how well or badly we play, just to work as hard as we can.
‘It’s become a thing in that we measure each other as teammates. We go on honesty and when that’s driven from the team it’s so much easier.
‘There’s a sense of openness as well as a sense of responsibility in the group. It’s black and white: just work and give your best at all times.’