The Springboks will win in Sydney next week but that will do nothing to hide the fact that the world champions have stagnated, writes ZELIM NEL.
The proverbial cat is out of the bag – the Boks have lost their way and are now at a crossroads with 12 months to go to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
A master planner, Rassie Erasmus would have spent much of the time since a 27-26 defeat at Twickenham in November ruling perfect lines on his Bok map from January 2022 to September 2023.
However, his pristine, grand designs were smudged by the unexpected success of the Stormers and Bulls in the United Rugby Championship. He doesn’t like surprises, and there’s probably a part of him that resents this unforeseen development, and his obstinate refusal to adjust the plan to maximise the obvious potential of the likes of Evan Roos, Marcell Coetzee and Elrigh Louw, and address the red flags in key positions, is primarily why the Boks have stalled.
The world champions were never in the contest as they slumped to a 25-17 reverse against Australia in Adelaide.
The score greatly flatters South Africa and that is a sobering reality given the Boks went into this Test on the back of a disappointing 35-23 reverse against statistically one of the worst All Blacks teams of all time.
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While the Boks have been criticised over the past 12 months for failing to win with consistency, they’ve never had any trouble picking themselves up for a backlash. That is what was required in Adelaide, but the Boks came out in floral shirts, cargo shorts and flip flops like a team playing in a summer charity exhibition on a Caribbean island.
A forward pack infamous for being predictably direct and inspirationally unstoppable tried to showcase their footballing skills. Pieter-Steph du Toit toed through a grubber on the wing, Eben Etzebeth pushed a basketball pass to no one and Lood de Jager made a beautiful offload out of the tackle to a grateful Wallabies loose forward.
This free-styling display of tactical naivete was complemented by flyhalf Handre Pollard shanking simple kicks at goal, poor passing from Damian de Allende and a long list of errors and miscues from Warrick Gelant in what will likely be his last contribution in the Test arena.
Joseph Dweba’s struggles at the lineout continued, the recalled Elton Jantjies and Frans Steyn made no positive impact off the bench, and though Duane Vermeulen came up with a few vital turnovers in his 50-minute spell, the veteran No 8 was a non-factor as an enforcer.
The Boks were ice-cold which is a perfect description for the selections this season and, from a big-picture perspective, the state of the world champions a year out from an important trip to the Eiffel Tower.
Erasmus is regarded as an elite coach, but the accelerating decline of the Boks is a reminder that his legacy is one based on salvaging sinking ships, not maintaining championship contenders.
The Cheetahs hadn’t won a Currie Cup in 28 years when he led them to glory in 2005 and 2006. The following year he joined the Boks as technical adviser and by 2008 he was heading up the rescue operation at the Stormers, who had finished the 2007 Super 14 season in 10th place. The Cape franchise reached the final in 2010 and Erasmus pulled the ejection cord the following January.
After riding a desk at SA Rugby for a few years, Erasmus went to Munster in 2016, taking over a team that had won 77 of 125 matches since 2012. He put together a 77% win rate (the best in club history) and Munster finished top of the 2016-17 PRO12 table and runners-up in the playoffs.
Erasmus cut short his stay to return home in 2018 to dig the Boks out of their deepest hole, and famously guided them to the title at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
But what has changed since then is that he is no longer coaching a squad frantically trying to scrape off the stench of losing 20-18 in Florence, 38-3 in Dublin and 57-0 in New Zealand. He is now working with World Cup winners, and the victors of a successful series against the British & Irish Lions.
And where he first pulled together a team desperate to do whatever it took to stop the bleeding every time they ran out, he now finds himself in charge of a group of players, many of whom cannot see what’s in front of them because they’re squinting at the blurry 2023 Rugby World Cup in the distance.
As the idiom goes, it’s easier to get to the top than stay there. The implication is that it takes something different to achieve sustained success and Erasmus has done a terrible job of making the brave calls required to change into 2023 world champions.
Picture: Getty Images