A series victory against England and a big-time win against the All Blacks in New Zealand belied South Africa’s 5-5 record as they embarked on a challenging four-week tour of Europe.
The Boks boarded the plane to Heathrow destined for a November campaign that was supposed to tick boxes important to SA’s 2019 Rugby World Cup chances, but they returned with more questions than answers.
As the tour wore on it became increasingly clear that the team was in win-now mode, with Rassie Erasmus selecting his strongest available lineup in every match.
Indeed, his predecessors – if they’d been tasked with reviving the Boks from two of the worst seasons in team history, less than two years from the next World Cup – would have done exactly the same thing. The difference is that none of them had the luxury of a six-year contract; they would have been coaching for their lives.
However, as was the case with the Bok coaches before him, Erasmus will be judged primarily on South Africa’s performance at the World Cup. In fact, nothing is more likely to stop him from reaching an unprecedented sixth year in the hot seat like a dismal showing in Japan. Failing to at least reach the semi-finals would erase all credit accumulated on his eBoks card, even including an unbeaten 2018.
And that’s why it was important for Erasmus to make the most of the latitude provided by his long-term contract by risking the November tour in pursuit of gaining clarity on the plan for global supremacy.
In the coach’s defence, Embrose Papier (134 minutes) and Ivan van Zyl (108) both got a run, and perhaps that was what Erasmus had in mind when he negotiated with Sale Sharks to release first-choice scrumhalf Faf de Klerk after the Test against France.
While De Klerk is at least one echelon below the quality of a Fourie du Preez, Joost van der Westhuizen and Ricky Januarie, the one question this tour did answer is that the Sale halfback is at least one tier above the current quality of Papier and Van Zyl. But that’s where the answers stopped and the questions started.
After spelling Willie le Roux for the final 15 minutes against the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld, Damian Willemse was given a 77-minute audition for the role of ‘backup fullback’ in the tour-opener at Twickenham.
The raw but outrageously-talented Stormers playmaker wouldn’t have played another minute on the tour had Sbu Nkosi not been a late withdrawal in Cardiff, so the question remains: who starts at fullback if Le Roux suffers an injury, and have we verified that player’s Test credentials?
Another unanswered question relates to the composition of the back row. Openside flanker Siya Kolisi finished the tour without having won a single turnover.
Malcolm Marx led with three and the way he was swarmed by teammates every time he got over the ball to win a penalty underlines the value of those turnovers.
The question: with Kolisi at 6, and Duane Vermeulen on the blindside when Warren Whiteley is available, are the Boks able to mount a legitimate turnover threat at the tackle point? And where does that leave arguably SA’s most consistent performer, Pieter-Steph du Toit?
Erasmus persisted with Whiteley at No 8 for the first two Tests before the latter broke down with a calf injury, a selection that raises questions about how the Boks want to play.
Percentage tactics are the foundation of Erasmus’ rugby philosophy. Swys de Bruin’s attack is not compatible with the principles of percentage tactics, schematically or from a personnel perspective. So where Erasmus places a premium on gain-line ascendancy at No 8 (see: Vermeulen), Whiteley’s athleticism is a better fit for De Bruin’s wide plays.
Handre Pollard was the clear-cut starting flyhalf on the eve of the November campaign. Then he spent 76 minutes of the tour at inside centre, with Elton Jantjies at first receiver.
The reason that the attack sprang to life every time Jantjies jogged on was because De Bruin’s attack is custom-built for the Lions flyhalf. It requires a playmaker who favours passing, and who complements a quick release with consistent accuracy. Handre Pollard favours running, has a ponderous release and is all over the dart board. The Bulls pivot is, however, much better at handling the kicking and tackling duties at the vanguard of percentage tactics.
Is the 10 jersey up for grabs? Is the Lions attacking plug-in compatible with international rugby, where Jantjies has won 8 of 20 Test starts?
And then there was the kamikaze defensive system which bordered on comedy. It’s hard to believe that blind gambling is what renowned defence coach Jacques Nienaber had in mind when he installed the system, but that underlines questions about whether the Boks should be experimenting on defence given the lack of experience in the squad, and time remaining before the World Cup.
Despite the obvious insanity of blitzing an outside defender on a whim against a numerically-superior attack, there’s a hidden cost to the mop-up team when the callow wingers get it wrong. South Africa will arrive in Japan with one of the heaviest forward packs, and asking gain-line brutes to scramble to the trams every time the outside backs allow a jailbreak seems like an ill-fated endeavour.
A 320-minute tour spawned new questions that Erasmus and the Boks will have to answer in the 320 minutes that remain before South Africa’s World Cup opener against New Zealand in Yokohama. Here’s hoping.