Here is a sobering thought. After the Springboks’ showdown with the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday, Rassie Erasmus has just six more Tests before the Boks’ opening World Cup match against … the very same All Blacks.
It is just 53 weeks until these teams do battle in Yokohama on September 21 and the heat is on Erasmus to get the Springbok house in order. Steve Hansen, of course, has been fine-tuning since, well, the last World Cup and over the next one year and one week he has only to keep the dust off his finished product.
Since these old rivals did battle in the 2015 semi-final (which the All Blacks won 20-18) they have taken completely divergent paths back to next year’s World Cup rematch.
In short, Erasmus in June took the wheel of a ship listing heavily and remarkably righted it in the series against England, only for it to be floundering once more in the Rugby Championship after the coach took his eye off the swells before him and focused too heavily on the World Cup horizon.
And now, after two depressing losses, the refrain from the sweating Springbok staff this week has been “judge us on the World Cup”, an expedient phrase too often used by beleaguered Bok coaches to buy time.
It was infamously coined by Rudolf Straeuli in 2003 around the time of the Jan van Riebeeck Test against the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld. And between that 16-52 rout and the World Cup in Australia, Bok Test caps rained down in this country like manna from heaven. The net was cast so far and wide, and so many one-cap wonders created, that Straeuli was spoilt for mediocre choice by the time the Boks had their rematch with the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-final in Melbourne, and were effortlessly dispatched 29-9.
The difference between the Straeuli and Erasmus eras is that where the former was mostly polishing turds in terms of player quality, Rassie has enough gems for the Boks to shine at the World Cup — he just has to use them wisely.
Erasmus will know he has made mistakes in his seven-match tenure thus far, and he now needs to regroup and perhaps copy the road to the World Cup taken by another Springbok coach called in to do salvage work ahead of a World Cup, the supremely successful Kitch Christie.
He was asked to do an “ambulance job” when Ian McIntosh was fired by Louis Luyt for daring to lose a series in New Zealand — the Boks in fact drew the third and final Test — and Christie had four remaining Tests in 1994 and one friendly in 1995 to implement his strategy.
Christie’s no-frills, no-risk approach to tactics won him no prizes for good fellowship but it did win the World Cup. From the outset he settled on a team, stuck with it, and built a winning culture.
Come to think of it, Jake White did much the same thing albeit over a much longer period. In his first Test match in 2004 he told his disbelieving players that they would win the World Cup in 2007. Four years later in the change room at the Stade de France, pretty much the same team was drinking from the Webb Ellis Cup.
And let’s be frank, there was nothing pretty about Jake White’s percentage rugby. But, again, it won the World Cup and no South African cared how it was done. That was a long time ago …
This country’s desperate need for good news is where Rassie has missed a trick. Sport so often has given respite to suffering South Africans but not of late. The poor Springbok, for example, has taken so many hits in recent years that it should have been euthanized.
And never mind the public, the players themselves are gatvol of humiliation. These are proud men who are sick of being the butt of cheap jokes.
Never mind 2019, Rassie needs to streamline his ambitions to reviving the ailing Springbok brand now, to begin revitalising pride in the green and gold by finding a way to win. Springbok history has shown how it can be done.