Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks have proved that a more transformed team can win big Test matches via a pragmatic yet exciting approach, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Bok players couldn’t stop smiling in the wake of their series-clinching victory against England at Free State Stadium. The result was but one reason for the mood of celebration and excitement.
Going by the comments made at the post-match press conference, there’s a lot of respect between the new coaching staff and the players. There was an acknowledgement for the history that’s been made in recent weeks as well as the monumental results that have been achieved. There was also an admission that this is but the beginning and that the team will need to improve before the Rugby Championship and indeed the 2019 World Cup.
Erasmus has been rewarded for some bold selections and strategies. After steering the Boks to a convincing series win against England, he has surely shattered a few perceptions about transformation and about a winning style of play.
There were many in the South African media contingent who were ready to denounce Erasmus as a conservative coach following the loss against Wales. The press conference that followed the Boks’ return from the USA featured more than a few questions about the ‘outdated’ style of play utilised in that particular match, which was afflicted by wet weather.
Seven days separated the fixture against Wales in Washington DC and the subsequent match against England in Johannesburg. There was no sympathy for the fact that Erasmus was forced to take a second-string side to the USA, though. One joker even asked Erasmus if he was happy that his ‘IP’ was ‘aligned’, an unkind reference to the buzzwords used by the coach in the lead up to the Test season.
Two weeks later, and it’s clear that Erasmus has been anything but conservative.
Siya Kolisi has been reluctant to take credit these past two weeks. There’s been a lot of pressure on the first black African Test captain both on and off the field, and Kolisi has lauded the impact of his leadership team after two stunning comeback victories.
The likes of Duane Vermeulen – who must be an early front-runner for Man of the Series – have been quick to remind everyone about Kolisi’s contribution and the inspirational effect he has had on the team. The captain and indeed the leadership group as a unit have proved a few people wrong.
The decision to make Kolisi captain was a logical one given the injuries and availability of other candidates. One has to give credit to Erasmus for making the right call, though. The country has come together over the appointment in recent weeks, and the impact it’s had on the team has been plain for all to see.
There is still a long way to go with regard to SA Rugby’s transformation goals, especially at the lower levels. The anti-transformation brigade would have been embarrassed, however, when a starting side featuring six black Africans overcame a decorated England side in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.
Transformation aside, Erasmus has shown a willingness to invest in this group of players despite their level of experience or geographical location. Vermeulen reminded the media on Saturday evening that as many as 16 players have been capped over the past three weeks. That highlights the lack of experience in the squad, but also speaks to Erasmus’ faith in these players as well as his long-term plan to build a side that can win the 2019 World Cup.
Erasmus brought Vermeulen back from France. He brought Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux back from the international wilderness.
Once again, Vermeulen has proved an asset as a player and leader. De Klerk and Le Roux, once recognised as little more than free-spirited mavericks, have added a lot more to their respective games while playing club rugby in Europe. Both have been influential for the Boks in the series against England.
When I interviewed Erasmus for SA Rugby magazine before the series, he came across as well organised and confident. He was open about the challenges faced by South African rugby but didn’t believe that they were insurmountable. He assured me that this country had the players to win big Tests and that the national team would give long-suffering supporters a reason to smile soon enough.
The verdict after a series win against England is that Erasmus has made good on his promises. On Saturday, he reiterated that this was only the beginning and that a lot of work still needs to be done before the next World Cup.
Perhaps the biggest compliment he received was from his opposite number. On Saturday, Eddie Jones suggested that Erasmus has steered the Boks back to a traditional approach, and that the players had executed that plan particularly well.
The Boks have been extremely physical in the first two Tests of the series. On the back of that forward dominance, they have looked to vary their play. There’s been a drive to kick for territory and win the ball back in the air, but there has also been a lot of intent and innovation on attack.
The Boks are playing with more conviction and direction under Erasmus. That there is still plenty of room for improvement is an encouraging thought.
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