It’s amazing what one win over the mighty All Blacks can do to change the public mood and you could sense a wave of positivity sweeping across the entire nation after those epic, emotional, final minutes where the Springboks stood firm against a tidal wave.
South Africans representative of all race groups, religious denominations and cultures would surely have united in sharing the emotion that flooded from the eyes of Pieter-Steph du Toit whose performance on the field and reaction to victory epitomised what playing for the nation clearly means to the players.
But in watching the Bok celebrations, a thought came to me: What if this is Rassie Erasmus’ best team? He said beforehand that the team he was putting onto the field was his strongest selection since he became Bok coach. And the result proved it.
Why that is a problem is that there were dissenting voices, led by Cosatu Western Cape General Secretary Tony Ehrenreich, who took issue with Erasmus over the racial mix of the team.
That wasn’t surprising on several levels. If you Google his name you will note that Ehrenreich tends to have something to say in the week building up to an All Black Test. Last year, he threatened a protest at Newlands when the All Blacks were there.
Ehrenreich of course has a right to his views. And he has given voice to what many would consider to be legitimate concerns. When Erasmus started out as Bok coach he was lauded for being the first national mentor to choose a black captain for a Test match and for the racial mix of his playing group.
If the coach accepted the praise then for exceeding what he is expected to, then it is only fair, and right, that he should be chided and questioned when he starts to slip up in the numbers game. He has set his own bar.
But Erasmus would have anticipated that slip for he will know as well as anyone that he is involved in a sport where there is a high attrition rate, meaning injuries. Sbu Nkosi, so excellent on the wing against England, is out injured. The man who replaced him, Makazole Mapimpi, is now also out injured. Trevor Nyakane is injured, Warrick Gelant is injured.
Where the likes of Ehrenreich and those rugby writers who also pounced on the reduction in the number of black players would have a point is that the production line in South African rugby has not been strong enough since unity to ensure that there are enough black players ready to step into the shoes of the injured black players.
But nobody can fault Erasmus for trying, and while he has become a bit of a broken gramophone when it comes to stressing the need to mix and match selections to build depth, many of the changes he has made appear to have been brought about by twin purpose.
For instance, the black players who were dropped to the bench from the team that started in Brisbane the previous week were Bongi Mbonambi and Elton Jantjies. Rugby is not an empirical science, and there is no clear right or wrong, but Malcolm Marx is in many people’s view the best hooker in the world, and Handre Pollard is a better gainline flyhalf than Jantjies. Jesse Kriel, in addition to experience, also has all the attributes of a wing, particularly the size needed against the All Blacks.
The selection of Steven Kitshoff as the starting loosehead ahead of Beast also made sense if you remember how good Kitshoff was when he started against the All Blacks at Newlands last October.
The need to transform is a non-negotiable and Erasmus bought into that when he accepted the job. I disagree with those whose knee-jerk response to every Bok defeat is to blame transformation. Invariably, when you press those people to be specific about their claims they have no answer.
But there are times when coaches, particularly those that have already shown their commitment to transformation and who definitely can’t be accused of not giving black players opportunities, should be allowed some flexibility when it is necessary.
The one drawback of being too strict in the application of racial quotas is that it leads to a situation where, for instance, an injury to a black flank who has no black player backing him up means that your star centre might have to be dropped. That makes no sense at all and we all saw on Saturday just how hard it is to beat the world’s best team.
When watching the Boks celebrate their win on Saturday, how many South Africans paid any attention to the racial mix of the players who had made them proud? Maybe some did, certainly those who support the All Blacks may have, but it is unlikely to have been the majority. It was an achievement that was good for the psyche of the nation.
Erasmus chose a team that was good enough to beat the All Blacks, which is not something many international coaches have managed over the past decade. To do it required some flexibility.
Commitment to transformation needs to be judged over a period of time and not on a weekly basis.