Often when we listen to a coach talking, we’re so obsessed with the here and now, the current story or latest trend, that we miss the subtle nuances that are thrown our way in laying the foundation for a later, bigger and much more significant story.
So it is with a smirk that I wonder, after listening to Rassie Erasmus for the past three weeks, if he is readying Bok fans for a mighty fall.
Okay, that may be a tad dramatic. But anyone who has been listening to Erasmus will have noticed him peppering his prose with phrases such as “we must be brave” and “we will lose games along the way, but as long as we are growing.”
It’s understandable, in a high-pressure job like coaching the Springboks, that Erasmus will provide caveats to stop the euphoria from getting out of hand. But this week he took it a step further, reminding those in Cape Town that the Boks are “miles behind” the All Blacks at the moment.
That’s hardly the type of comment the average Springbok fan, fresh from a 2-0 drubbing of Eddie Jones’ England, expects to hear. It’s clear that Erasmus is slowly laying the groundwork for the possibility that things will go horribly wrong in the Rugby Championship.
In his defence, the euphoria is sometimes a bit over the top and there is so much positive sentiment in Bok rugby at the moment after the appointment of Siya Kolisi as captain, the removal of the transformation headache that has bogged down so many of his predecessors and, importantly, some great rugby being played on the field.
But there is also a fine line between enthusiasm and support, and blind loyalty. The current crop of Springboks have a lot to work on still, even though they have hauled themselves out of the ditch twice to roar back and score impressive victories.
The England series is won, and now the challenges take a step up. A massive step up.
While we can scoff about Wales’ 2-0 series-win in Argentina, Bok teams have struggled against the Pumas in recent times. Touring Australia has always been our Achilles heel, losing or drawing games that the Boks clearly should have won. And, on September 17, the Boks’ face their moment of truth.
All the sentiment and all the results will, in the eyes of Springbok supporters, be put into context by what happens during 80 minutes of rugby at the Cake Tin in Wellington, New Zealand.
Remember the similar desperation for good news in 2017 after Allister Coetzee’s side had put 35 on France in each of three consecutive wins? There was talk of a “new team culture”, a great, positive outlook, and everything looked dandy.
The team was unbeaten until they stepped onto the pitch in Christchurch on September 16 last year, and then the wheels came off spectacularly as the Boks suffered a record 57-0 loss.
As Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Allister Coetzee’s tenure fell apart there and he will forever be remembered for the Boks’ biggest loss, just as Heyneke Meyer will always be remembered for the World Cup defeat against Japan. It is harsh, but that is sport.
There is every reason to celebrate the Boks’ success against England, a side that boasted they were coming to South Africa to win 3-0. But it must be seen for what it is – a step in the right direction, but not conclusive evidence of a Bok resurrection.
The main difference with the class of 2018 is that they have a fighting spirit we haven’t seen in a long time. Like a boxer, they’ve stumbled backwards after being hit with a flurry of combinations, but they’ve come back to record two big knockout wins.
Rassie will continue to temper the expectations, knowing that it can all come apart during one week in New Zealand. He will be optimistic about the return of experienced players such as Warren Whiteley, Eben Etzebeth, Malcolm Marx and Coenie Oosthuizen lifting the Boks in September.
And he will be hoping the fighting spirit and belief grows into something that translates into a sustainable upward curve that takes the Boks through to the World Cup.
The Boks are making all the right moves at the moment, but Erasmus is issuing subtle warnings because he knows that a perfect start, and a nation’s belief, can be knocked out by one big punch to the face.