If the warning lights in Rassie Erasmus’ coaching box were flickering prior to the trip to Argentina, the Springboks’ poor performance in Mendoza certainly has them burning brightly as a potentially disastrous Australasian tour looms.
The Boks have flattered to deceive all too often over the past few seasons. Strong at home, where conditions and a home crowd tend to suit them, they have looked decent and have won games despite being under the pump.
But away from home the wheels have come off. Since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the Boks’ record away from home has been abysmal – they have won three games, drawn one and lost 11 Test matches, including some record defeats under the watch of Allister Coetzee.
It is with a sense of impending doom, rather than optimism, that the Boks leave these shores, and Saturday’s defeat in Mendoza – a game that was supposed to lift the mood of the nation – has firmly seen Erasmus’ honeymoon as coach ended by an inept performance that the coach himself called “embarrassing.”
But if you look a bit deeper, the roots of the defeat were there for all too see, masked by the fact that the Boks got away with much earlier this season. The warning lights have been flickering for a long while.
There were some howls of disbelief when I published a column on this website a few weeks back intimating that Erasmus was setting Bok fans up for a big fall when they face the All Blacks in Wellington. The results and performances of both teams over the past weekend have entrench my belief.
The All Blacks, with the sublime performance of Beauden Barrett standing out, are looking more unbeatable than ever, while the Boks seem to have struggled to shake off their demons, even though the vibe has been a lot more positive under Erasmus thus far.
The Boks’ problems have been compounded by their inexplicable belief that they should attack at all costs, and without this system being perfected, mistakes have been punished systematically. They had 61-percent possession and forced the Pumas to make almost 150 tackles.
In South Africa, they were able to pull the game back thanks to crowd support and a strong finish, but on Saturday at the Estadio Malvinias Argentinas, their first-half lull was deadly, and they never recovered.
This performance was on par with the loss to England in Cape Town, but at least there conditions played a factor. On Saturday it was all the Boks’ own doing.
Earlier this season, the Boks twice made slow starts against England but surged back to win, and were then outplayed at Newlands in the rain. In Durban last week, they fell 14-3 behind as Argentina punished mistakes.
Not only has the kicking performances of Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies been under the spotlight since Erasmus has taken over, but the Boks seem to be following the Lions mantra of shunning kicks at goal, especially when they are behind.
Test rugby teaches many lessons, not the least to “build an innings” on the scoreboard – a tactic that the Boks seem unwilling, or unable to follow. And defence, a hallmark of Jacques Nienaber’s role over the years under Erasmus, has been found wanting.
To Erasmus’ credit, he has been trying to expand the base by giving untried players experience and has been backing a formula of experience in the pack to lay the basis for this. On Saturday, it was exposed cruelly as the Bok backline looked out of shape and devoid of attacking penetration. The time has come for a more pragmatic approach.
For one, the Bok spine hasn’t been operating as a unit. While much has been focused on Handre Pollard’s performance (and he does seem to have a confidence dilemma), Malcolm Marx and Warren Whiteley failed to impress in Mendoza, Faf de Klerk operated in spurts and Willie le Roux’s disappearing act on defence only made things worse.
The blunt approach in Mendoza failed against a pack that pushed the limits and got away with it. Against Australia, currently in disarray, the Boks have a poor away record. Experimentation may have been Erasmus’ plan, but now pragmatism is needed more than ever.
The spine needs to fire again, and the Boks need to learn how to build an innings. The first-half blowouts will be more costly than ever in Australasia if they reoccur and the selection needs to be right. Having four players in the backline with less than five caps will be disastrous against the All Blacks.
The one thing that Erasmus can’t afford right now is a bad tour – Allister Coetzee found out an unbeaten run meant nothing in the aftermath of a record 57-0 drubbing at the hands of the All Blacks. Erasmus is astute enough to know the same.
Mendoza exposed the flaws this Bok team has been hiding for some time now. Unless the cracks are fixed before the Brisbane Test, this tour could become a nightmare for Bok supporters.