Rassie Erasmus and Eddie Jones will have one eye on the World Cup during the June Test series, writes JOHN PLUMTREE.
Eddie Jones received plenty of plaudits when his England team claimed back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2016 and 2017. After winning their first two matches of this year’s tournament, Jones had an exceptional record of 24 victories in 25 Tests as England coach. However, three consecutive defeats saw them finish fifth on the Six Nations log and drop from No 2 to No 3 in the world rankings.
Jones copped plenty of criticism as a result, which didn’t surprise me. If you rub the media up the wrong way, which he often does, you’re going to get it back in a double dose when you go through a bad patch! Jones, though, is an outstanding coach who has achieved success wherever he has gone, and I still believe England will pose a big threat under him at the 2019 World Cup.
To be fair, Jones was missing several players through injury in the Six Nations and some of his Lions players were clearly tired, having toured New Zealand the previous June and July. Most of them also travelled to Australia in June 2016, when England whitewashed the Wallabies 3-0.
It therefore makes sense for Jones to rest some of his key players for the three-Test tour of South Africa in June, with the 2019 World Cup in mind, and test some youngsters who could have a role to play in Japan. He will want England to play well in South Africa, of course, but he knows he will be judged by what happens at the World Cup.
While the first two Tests of the series will be played at altitude, in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, England will be based in Durban. Jones and co would have explored the science around that and decided they can prepare in Durban and then fly up for the game late in the week. I played for the Sharks under coach Ian McIntosh and he always believed that was a good way to go about it.
For the Springboks, the June Tests will be the start of a new era under Rassie Erasmus. There has been speculation that he will take a B team to Washington DC to play Wales on 2 June and keep his first-choice team in South Africa to prepare for the first Test against England at Ellis Park on 9 June. That would be a smart approach, because having to travel to and from the US, and then play at altitude a few days later, is asking a lot of the same group of players.
Erasmus will obviously want to win all four Tests in June, but he would also like to blood some players who he believes can go on to play a part at the World Cup. There aren’t too many Tests left before that global tournament, if you consider that next year’s Rugby Championship will consist of a single round of matches. The South African rugby public will need to be patient with Erasmus, who will not only select some new players but also try new things.
There are some exciting players in South African rugby and several of them are black, which is great to see. I understand Erasmus’ team has to be 45% black this season, which shouldn’t be too much of an issue when you have the likes of Warrick Gelant, Lukhanyo Am, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Madosh Tambwe doing well for their Super Rugby teams. Lions No 8 Hacjivah Dayimani also looks promising.
The Bok backline was disappointing last year, so it will be interesting to see how they do on attack and defence in 2018. Defence coach Jacques Nienaber should help improve the latter, although it will take time for the players to adjust to his systems.
The Boks certainly have the players to pose an attacking threat. I’ve been impressed with Gelant, who should start at fullback for the Boks, while Dyantyi and Tambwe are both fast, exciting wings. André Esterhuizen has been impressive at inside centre, and you’ve got Jesse Kriel, Am and Lionel Mapoe competing for the No 13 jersey. I’d go for Mapoe. Handré Pollard’s game management at flyhalf has improved this year because of the structures John Mitchell has implemented at the Bulls, and he is also a strong defender. Elton Jantjies is a good player, too, but better going forwards than backwards.
The Boks should again have a formidable pack with the likes of Malcolm Marx, Lood de Jager (who’s played really well for the Bulls this season) and the Du Preez twins (Jean-Luc and Dan) involved.
I’m excited to see how the Springboks go in June, and against the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship later in the year when we will be able to properly gauge their progress under Erasmus.
– This column first appeared in the June 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine