Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus is one of the brightest fellows I’ve come across in rugby, so I’m curious to see how he will ensure a positive outcome from South Africa’s Test against Wales in Washington on June 2.
As is the case with two of the Boks’ last four matches against Wales (in 2014 and 2017), this one falls outside World Rugby’s Test window. The very next Saturday, the Boks play England in Johannesburg in the first of a series of three Tests, and it will be very surprising if Rassie selects players from the Wales Test for duty at Ellis Park.
On the one hand, it may be an opportunity to experiment with some combinations and new faces but, on the other, it has the potential to end in defeat and shift the coach’s attention away from the tremendous opportunity of beating a seemingly fragile English team.
The Boks, of course, have had to negotiate a number of uncomfortable Welsh hurdles outside Test windows in recent years. The two most recent ones ended in costly defeats.
In 2014, the Boks not only succumbed to Wales for the first time since suffering their maiden loss against the Dragons in 1999, but skipper Jean de Villiers suffered a horrific knee injury. At the time he was the Boks’ so-called “Captain Fantastic”.
De Villiers would achieve the remarkable feat of recovering in time for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but his career would end with another cruel twist of fate when he fractured his jaw in a pool match against Samoa in Birmingham.
So why exactly has SA Rugby developed this cosy relationship with its Welsh counterpart, a relationship that appears to court ignominious outcomes for the Boks?
The answer was to be found in SA Rugby’s annual report, of which I obtained a copy at their AGM in Newlands in April 2015. It revealed that the seemingly calamitous decision to play the Welsh the previous year had, in fact, yielded an income of R15.46-million.
When I put it to SA Rugby chief Jurie Roux that playing the Test might have come at a greater price than the income (a Bok loss and an injured captain) his response was that one could not argue like that.
From a CEO’s point of view, I understood where he was coming from. SA Rugby had declared a modest profit of R1.9m in their financial year, and without the Test it would have been a loss of in excess of R13.5m.
And SA Rugby would also have pocketed another tidy sum from profit-sharing with the Welsh Rugby Union towards the end of last year, so there is method in what – on the face of it – looks like sheer bloody madness.
From this year’s AGM I could also glean that SA Rugby are assured of income from the match in Washington – though it’s not yet known how much, reports suggest that the two teams will each pocket approximately R9m. All will be revealed next April and, again, the question will be at what expense to the Boks.
But, trust me, if you catch a glimpse of SA Rugby’s latest annual report, you’ll realise that they could do with an entire series against the All Blacks in the USA rather than just one match against Wales. SA Rugby returned a pre-tax loss of R33.3m and there is the real prospect of their beautiful museum at the V&A Waterfront having to be closed down.
Rugby is increasingly a money game, with the inevitable outcome that decisions sometimes detrimental to on-field performance have to be made. The Bok brand has no doubt suffered in these defeats.
Nevertheless, Rassie is a wily old fox and never short of a plan. He will, at the very least, put the match to use in a test of depth. There is, after all, a World Cup next year and he will spot some kind of opportunity in the precious few matches he has before then.