Rassie Erasmus was a member of the coaching team that was in Wellington for the 2011 Rugby World Cup when the Springboks’ most-recent golden age ended in a disappointing quarter-final defeat. Now, with some clever management, he will have a chance to succeed where Peter de Villiers failed.
The team that Jake White built, and which won the World Cup in 2007, should have kicked on and been the dominant team in the next four-year cycle. There were enough special players who continued after the triumph in Paris, but unfortunately their coach didn’t.
Erasmus’ secondment to the management team in 2011 helped to correct a slide that had started after the Boks’ player-driven culture was unable to respond to the Kiwi and Aussie coaching corrections following South Africa’s dominance in 2009. The Boks beat the Lions that year and comfortably won the Tri-Nations but it was just a frustratingly brief glimpse of what might have been.
With Erasmus’ heavyweight rugby brain in the coaching mix, the Boks could well have become the first team to win the global showpiece tournament back to back, had it not been for the Bryce Lawrence refereeing freak show at the Cake Tin.
It was a frustrating end to the previous era. Heyneke Meyer retained some of those players up to and including the 2015 World Cup, but in many instances their sell-by dates had come and gone.
South African rugby could, however, be on the cusp of another golden age. While Erasmus already has enough talent to select from to mount a credible challenge for the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan next year, it is the four-year cycle beyond 2019 that really excites me.
World Cups are won by experienced teams. With most of the players likely to be part of the tournament in Japan expected to remain in the mix for the following World Cup, Erasmus, who has been given the rare opportunity to take a six-year view on his tenure, is in a position to develop and guide another golden age of players to a more fitting outcome.
The likes of Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel and Eben Etzebeth should be going to their third World Cups in 2023. The list of other players who are likley to play big roles in 2019, and who will be mature and potentially at their peak in France four years later, is an extensive one if you really dig into it: Malcolm Marx, Siya Kolisi, Steven Kitshoff, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe (if he recovers from his injuries), Bongi Mbonambi, Warrick Gelant, Jan Serfontein, Jean-Luc du Preez…
And the special new players coming through – those that Erasmus may not consider experienced enough for duty in Japan next year – really get the pulse racing for, in listing all the above names, I have ignored the toll that modern rugby can take on a player’s body. Some of those players won’t last the full journey to 2023 just because their bodies may not allow them to.
The special young players would include some of those listed above, such as Gelant and Jean-Luc du Preez, but can be added to by the dazzling skills of Damian Willemse, the pace and skill of Aphiwe Dyantyi, the power of the currently raw yet immensely promising young Stormers loose forward Cobus Wiese, the kicking skills of Curwin Bosch, the combination of power and athleticism packed into a young second-row complement that could include JD Schickerling, RG Snyman and Marvin Orie.
Much is expected of another youngster who was only recently out of school, Juarno Augustus (currently injured). The No 8 was the player of the tournament at the World Rugby junior event last year. There you have your replacement for Warren Whiteley and Duane Vermeulen, neither of whom will still be around in 2023.
It is a consequence of the outflow of the more experienced players to northern hemisphere and Japanese clubs that South African talent is being blooded younger and younger. The drawback is that some of these players will suffer from not having the old timers to learn off, but the positive is that if they can get through the tough baptism to top rugby, then they are building up invaluable experience.
The challenge for Erasmus is to ensure that someone like Willemse travels the Beauden Barrett route by slowly being bled into international rugby. Barrett seemed a perennial bench player behind Dan Carter for the All Blacks but before you knew it he had 40 Test caps and that experience helped him when he became the frontline flyhalf.
One of the reasons the Allister Coetzee stint went so pear-shaped was because there were too many new players having to find their international feet at the same time. Because his predecessor had only been contracted to 2015, and his survival depended on that World Cup, not enough was made of opportunities to blood the youngsters while they still had experienced international players to learn off.
Erasmus is not just contracted until the next World Cup so he has the chance to do proper succession planning. The Test in Washington against Wales will be the first that Erasmus will preside over as head coach of the Boks and it is matches like that where he should be selecting with 2023 as much in his mind as 2019.