Rassie to the rescue!

Gavin Rich

Irish television commentators have bent over backwards to talk up the South African teams participating in the PRO14, but while waiting on the phone to be interviewed by a Dublin radio station I got to hear what the overseas media people might really think.

“Sorry to say but the South African teams are rubbish and are very disappointing.” That was more or less what it amounted to. And given how far from competitive both the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs have been so far, you can’t blame the Irish for holding that view.

Obviously the Irish media don’t know that much about the two South African teams, for before I went on air a theory was forwarded that the reason the Cheetahs were struggling was because their best players were playing in the Currie Cup.

Needless to say they were shocked to be told the best Cheetahs team is the one they are watching in the PRO14, and that the “other” Cheetahs team also went down by 50 points on the same day the first choice team were thrashed by Munster. Can the Cheetahs afford to have so many professional players on their books? And can South Africa afford so many professional players? They are good questions.

It is not all negative though. There may be some embarrassment heading South African rugby’s way in the short term, but in the long term, provided the Cheetahs and the Kings can get the money they need to be competitive, there will be benefits. One of those benefits will be exposure to a professional environment, to a culture where money is what talks and the best players that can be afforded are engaged regardless where they are from, and the same with coaches.

It is that last point that provides some long term hope for South African rugby in this week where the Springboks are playing the All Blacks. For one person who was spoken highly of, and in almost reverential tones, during that radio show was Rassie Erasmus, the Munster director of rugby who will soon be returning to South Africa to take up a similar position with the national body.

Erasmus was already a highly respected rugby brain before he left but his exposure to a professional system where the scarcity of resources in relation to South Africa means the coaches have to concentrate that much harder on developing talent, will make him even better equipped for the challenge that he faces.

The Springboks have made big strides towards dispelling the negativity that enveloped South African rugby at the end of last year, but now that respectability has been regained the quest should be to be the best in the world, and the All Blacks are the benchmark.

As evidence of that, the Wales-versus-All Blacks Test scheduled for the 74,000-seater Millennium Stadium was sold out this week, more than two months before the match is scheduled to take place, and not long after tickets had gone on sale.

The Cape Town Test featuring the All Blacks was sold out within an hour of ticket offices opening, and not just because the Boks are showing resurgent form.

The All Blacks are the biggest drawcard in world rugby not because of the number of tries they score, but because they are by far the most successful team. What rugby needs though is for them to be challenged, because continued and complete New Zealand dominance will start becoming problematic for the sport.

There was general agreement the British & Irish Lions series, where the Kiwis for once were held in check, was good for rugby. But the Lions are made up of a combination of nations and only get to play the All Blacks again 12 years from now. Although England have become contenders since the last World Cup, what the world game probably needs the most is the rivalry between the All Blacks and Boks to revert to what it was in yesteryear.

A good performance against the Kiwis in Albany will be a massive step in the right direction for the Boks, but it needs to happen consistently, and that is where Erasmus comes in. He will hopefully provide the professional polish across all levels that will ensure the Boks are perennial contenders rather than hopeful underdogs.

It may sound like pie in the sky, but in 2009 the Boks whitewashed the Kiwis 3-0 en route to winning the Tri-Nations. That was just eight years ago.

Good succession planning, effective coaching, a professional culture and attention to the right detail can get the Boks back there. Erasmus will play a key role in the quest to make that happen.

- Gavin Rich