Clive Woodward coached England at two Rugby World Cups between 1997 and 2004. In 1998, as part of their preparation for the 1999 RWC, England went to Australia and New Zealand, and they got a big hiding. England were whitewashed 76-0 in Brisbane and followed that two weeks later with a 64-22 loss in Dunedin.
Righting those wrongs was a focal point of Woodward’s plan for winning the 2003 RWC and he lined up matches against the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies as often as possible to grow the belief in his players.
England returned to the Antipodes in June of 2003 and edged New Zealand in Wellington (despite yellow cards to Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio) before stopping Australia in Melbourne.
Woodward later confirmed that victories against the southern hemisphere giants had provided a massive psychological boost. Jonny Wilkinson kicked a drop goal in the last minute of extra-time as England went on to beat the Wallabies in the 2003 Final.
And that’s what the Boks should be doing now, like Ireland did by taking their best team to Australia to win that series. Joe Schmidt wanted to teach his boys that they can stop the southern hemisphere teams and, in the last couple of years, Ireland have beaten New Zealand, South Africa and now they’ve won a series against the Wallabies. They have been psychologically hardened by those wins.
We’re getting to the point in South Africa where we’re continually losing against some teams, and that’s when the aura goes and the players forget how to win.
We’re going into the Rugby Championship with some boys who have played one Test match, and they’ve become one of 100 players in team history to have lost against Wales. That’s their experience of Springbok rugby.
Rassie Erasmus has let Duane Vermeulen go to Japan and it seems he’ll be bringing in another couple of guys for the Rugby Championship. He’s sold it to the rugby public on the basis that the Boks need to try a few things before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which is in total contrast to the rest of the world where guys are saying the time for experimenting is over and it’s about getting continuity.
It was a masterstroke by Rassie to bring back Vermeulen but, as good as that was, you have to ask yourself how he would come to the conclusion that he doesn’t need Vermeulen for the next six Test matches.
The guy that everyone spoke of as the European-based player who made the most significant impact for South Africa against England; that guy has been released for the Rugby Championship.
The only logical way to explain it is that, unlike other national coaches, Rassie is not worried about keeping his job. There’s no doubt in my mind that if his job depended on results over the next two years, there’s no way Vermeulen would have been allowed to go to Japan.
Let’s use England as an example. Eddie Jones is under pressure and he’s been told to get back to winning ways. Do you think he would consider resting any of his best players in this situation, when he knows his job is on the line?
I know the answer: never. And that’s a guy who has won two of the last three Six Nations titles. Not even he gets a freebie to experiment.
What I hear from the Bok camp is that we’ve got such a short time to prepare for the World Cup and that’s why we’re bringing back overseas players, even if they haven’t played 30 Tests. But Vermeulen is allowed to go to Japan and there’s a chance he won’t play in South Africa before the World Cup.
This is not about villifying Duane for playing in Japan – JP Pietersen, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana were all given similar concessions. But if Duane is important enough to bring back from Toulon, and consider appointing him as the captain, why would you not have him involved in the next six Tests against the best teams in the world? These are the same teams that the northern hemisphere heavyweights are so eager to Test themselves against before the World Cup.
If Ireland see beating southern hemisphere sides consistently as a crucial step in the process to winning the World Cup, why has South Africa not learnt that lesson?
The same thing is going to happen with England at the end of the year and Eddie is going to pick his best team for the November tours.
I find it incredible that the Bok coach, after two of the worst seasons in team history, is under so little pressure that he’s released the most impactful forward, who he just brought back from overseas. And it’s even more incredible when you consider that the 30-Test rule was changed so that Rassie could pick his best side, and now he’s voluntarily allowed one of his best players to go back.
Some people will say that it will strengthen South Africa’s depth. But when the teams line up in Wellington in September, Vermeulen’s absence will swing more confidence from the Boks to the All Blacks.
When players are allowed to negotiate where and when they’re available to play for South Africa, that’s how you lose your edge as a rugby powerhouse.