Rassie Erasmus is just days away from making arguably the most crucial decisions of what one hopes will be a full six-year tenure as Springbok coach.
Erasmus is the 14th Springbok coach since re-admission in 1992 – that equates to a new national coach every 20 months – and the ominous reality is that it hasn’t ended well for any of his predecessors.
Thus, for the man from Despatch to avoid the same litany of dissatisfaction, criticism and eventual dismissal, he has to get it right from the start and put together cohesive Test squads that will quickly gel and produce winning results.
And if, as the saying goes, you fail to learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it. One trusts that apart from studying the form and qualities of the players available to him, he has also had time to study the track records of those who went before him to pick out the pot holes.
In this season of “picking the Springbok team,” with pundits across the professional and social-media spectrum weighing in with their views on what it should be, it’s easy to be swept up in the popularity polls extolling the virtues of certain players – often on the basis of a single game – rather than working according to a blueprint of the ideal team.
Subjective or impulsive early decisions – either by being partial to players with whom the coach had a previous relationship, or being swayed by mass opinion – can invariably be picked out as beacons where it started to go wrong for previous coaches.
Of course the contention that all the team has to do is win stands out as the greatest truism, but could there be a model to follow that results in the perfect team?
It is a thought that struck me a while ago when doing Q&A sessions with former Western Province coach Dawie Snyman, the man who guided Province to five successive Currie Cup victories from 1982 to 1986.
The team that set in motion that exceptional run – Colin Beck, Carel du Plessis, Willie du Plessis, John Villet, Niel Burger, Michael du Plessis, Divan Serfontein, Nick Mallett, Theuns Stofberg, Hennie Bekker, De Villiers Visser, Rob Louw, Henning van Aswegen, Shaun Povey, Willouw van Niekerk – was perhaps the perfect prototype for the right 15-man combination.
An attacking fullback, wings who were a combination of class and pace, and crash-bang close to the line, solid defensive and creative centres, an X-factor flyhalf, a sharp, skillful scrumhalf, multi-skilled No8, big ball-carrying, lineout-winning blindside flank combined with a linking, running whippet on the open side, a tall lineout lock paired with powerful scrummager in the second row, technicians at prop and a strong, mobile hooker possessing pinpoint throwing talents.
The implication is that the unit, and the cohesion that can be achieved with players whose skills complement each other, should be the aim rather than selecting the 23 best players and trying to force them into a mould.
This approach certainly worked for SA’s two World Cup-winning coaches Kitch Christie and Jake White – both of whom had clear preferences and were able to slot in soldiers who could march in step.
There are obviously complications, such as the injuries suffered by Eben Etzebeth, Jaco Kriel and Malcolm Marx, and the avaricious and unnecessary trip to play Wales in America. But Erasmus’ greatest problem is, ironically, the abundance of talent with which he is confronted as he tries to arrive by the best group of some 30.
You only have to skim through the names put forward by the speculators to realise the puzzle the coach has to unravel.
There are five options at fullback: Curwin Bosch (Sharks), Andries Coetzee (Lions), Willie le Roux (Wasps), Dillyn Leyds (Stormers), Warrick Gelant (Bulls).
Seven wings: Ruan Combrinck (Lions), Aphiwe Dyanti (Lions), Makazole Mapimpi (Sharks), Lwazi Mvovo (Sharks), Raymond Rhule (Stormers), Courtnell Skosan (Lions), Sibusiso Nkosi (Sharks), Leyds again.
Ten centres: Lukhanyo Am (Sharks), Damian de Allende (Stormers), Andre Esterhuizen (Sharks), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Lions), Jesse Kriel (Bulls), Lionel Mapoe (Lions), Jan Serfontein (Montpellier), Francois Steyn (Montpellier), Francois Venter (Cheetahs), Harold Vorster (Lions).
And four flyhalves: Robert du Preez (Sharks), Elton Jantjies (Lions), Handre Pollard (Bulls), Damian Willemse (Stormers). Pat Lambie eliminated through injury.
All the positions have a number of candidates, with particular riches among the tight forwards, but it is a worry that the problematic positions – fullback, scrumhalf and eighthman – are part of the so-called spine of the team.
Does Rassie go for provincial combinations, or does he recall players from overseas? Who does he make captain, and should the captain be in for the long haul to 2023 or can he settle on stop-gap experience to get him through RWC 2019 before starting serious re-building?
There are more than a 100 players at the moment who have a shout at the coveted jersey, and there’s only room for a third of them in the Bok squad.
Erasmus is facing an onerous task and here’s wishing him one of Peter de Villiers’ “controllable uncontrollables” – a massive dollop of luck. He will need it.