In the second episode of ‘Chasing the Sun’, Rassie Erasmus shares an insightful recollection of how the players essentially went against his instruction to chase more than a losing bonus point against the All Blacks in Wellington last year.
Returning to the venue where the Springboks had secured a historic victory over New Zealand in 2018, the South African management were fully aware of just how much emphasis the All Blacks had placed on the return fixture.
The Boks had opted to utilise a split-squad system in the shortened 2019 Rugby Championship, and set the foundation for title success by securing a bonus-point win over Australia before going into the Wellington return match.
In the second episode of the Springboks’ insightful ‘Chasing the Sun’ documentary, Erasmus is shown leading a team talk in the buildup to that headline fixture.
‘They put this venue here, back at Wellington,’ he says passionately. ‘They’ve never done that before in history where two Test matches have been at the same venue consecutively. Why do you think that is? Give me any reason … [It’s because] they f***ing want to win this match.
‘And why do you think they played with 11 rookies in Argentina? They were prepared to lose to Argentina for the first time in their history, and [then] to not lose against us, that’s how nervous they are.’
On game day, the Springboks would produce a rousing first-half performance, but frustratingly concede a try just before half time, while with a sequence of second-half penalties New Zealand established a seven-point lead heading into the final minutes.
As the clock wound down, Erasmus took a strategic decision to instruct then assistant coach Jacques Nienaber to take a message on to the field, telling the players to rather protect the losing bonus point.
The thought process was with the bigger picture in mind as the Springboks would then be able to shift focus to securing a decisive win against Argentina in their next match to still claim the Rugby Championship title.
‘I didn’t want New Zealand to get a runaway try or intercept,’ Erasmus explains. ‘You know we were within the points, so I just wanted to get the bonus point, and I sent the message on.’
However, the documentary then shows interviews with fullback Willie le Roux, who explains how the team didn’t want to stop and didn’t believe a losing bonus point was good enough.
Veteran Duane Vermeulen also adds that ‘once something is on the table, no one will back down’.
Moving back to the match, Erasmus asks Nienaber what the response had been from the players after receiving the instruction to play for a bonus point. Ultimately, the Boks spoke through action as they produced an ambitious piece of play to break down the blindside, with superb interplay between Handre Pollard, Le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe ultimately setting up a try for Herschel Jantjies.
In the documentary, Erasmus reflects on that moment the players effectively went off script.
‘Obviously when I gave that message, they said “f**k you, no, we want to win this match”,’ Erasmus says with a wry smile.
Yet, it was one of those moments where Erasmus was more than happy to see the players show such fighting spirit.
‘We select a lot of guys for fight, we sometimes can’t explain to people why we selected one guy, but you just know he has more fight than the other guy. He might not be as good a rugby player as the other guy, but he has more fight, he’s a warrior. That made us think we can win this Rugby Championship, we can win the World Cup, because these guys don’t give up.’