Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus must have been curled up in the foetal position sobbing into a comfort pillow as he watched the Stormers and Bulls stumble and fumble to losses against the Jaguares and Sunwolves respectively, particularly as it came hours after the Brumbies beat the Hurricanes.
If he didn’t know the size of his next task, this past weekend would’ve shown him how massive it is.
As the euphoria of the Springboks’ Test series win over England gives way to sober analysis and reality, it becomes increasingly clear that the real examination of the Boks’ progress is yet to come.
Downing England twice, on the Highveld with unlikely come-from-behind wins, was worth celebrating and enjoying. But those wins highlighted as many problems as they solved.
If we take a further step back, you realise that the Boks won only 50% of their June Tests and both matches were at home, at altitude. The two they lost were in abject conditions in Washington DC and Cape Town – not dissimilar to what they might find in New Zealand and Australia in September, let alone the northern hemisphere in November.
Success in June is such a difficult barometer of a team’s progress. In 2016, Allister Coetzee’s Boks beat Ireland 2-1 and only won another two of their remaining nine Tests that year.
Last year, Coetzee’s team again started June with a bang, beating France 3-0 in a home series. We all know what happened next. Record losses to the All Blacks (57-0) and Ireland (38-3) followed before Coetzee was ushered off the SA Rugby premises telling anyone who would listen that his squad was ‘learning.’
Erasmus met his first objective – to win the series against England – but the hard work is only beginning.
Like France in 2017, this was an under-strength England at the end of a long, domestic and international season. The true worth of Erasmus’ Boks will be revealed in the coming months. And he has reason to worry.
In Super Rugby this year South African teams have won only two of 20 away games in the competition. In all matches between SA sides and overseas teams in Super Rugby, both home and away, local teams have only won 14 of 38 matches (37%).
Against New Zealand sides, SA teams have won 32% of matches this year. SA teams have a 42% win-rate against Australian franchises, a 33% win-rate against the Jaguares and a 50% ratio against the Sunwolves.
Weighed against those results and the Boks’ recent woes in the Rugby Championship – which has yielded only four wins in 12 matches over the past two seasons – it is clear that Erasmus’ real measure of progress lies ahead.
The All Blacks are rightly held up as the standard to beat, but my contention is that the Boks need to be a little more realistic in their expectations.
Of course they can beat New Zealand on a great day. The All Blacks are not infallible and on a bad day they might slip up against the Boks. But the reality is that any win over the world champions would be an anomaly.
Erasmus’ Boks need to start beating and dominating clashes against the Pumas and Wallabies to give an accurate indication of their progress.
Consistency of performance has to be matched with positive results against those two teams, while the goal, particularly in New Zealand, is to remain competitive and to avoid more 57-0 embarrassments.
I know this sounds defeatist because South Africans always expect that the Springboks should be the best in the world, but it’s time to be sensible. None of the evidence of recent years, in both Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship indicates that the Boks are close to being the best in the world. Expectations have to be tempered by grounded thinking.
The Boks have only won 50% of their Tests under Erasmus so far. He has handed out 16 new caps and is rebuilding a team that has some great potential and some glaring weaknesses.
Assumptions about their worth mustn’t be overstated. They are an evolving project and the next step is to consistently beat the teams in their orbit – Australia and Argentina.
The Boks can’t shoot for the stars, if they haven’t reached the moon yet.