Few things spell the end of the so-called honeymoon period for a Springbok coach like a looming Rugby Championship.
Former Bok coach Allister Coetzee knows this too well, having gone through it twice in his two years in charge. Coetzee’s first dose of rugby reality came after that iffy but successful start against Ireland in 2016, the Boks losing four of their six Rugby Championship games that year.
We thought a “new” culture-fuelled series-win over a French team that was weaker than the stuff my laaitjie passes into his nappies meant the Boks had turned the corner last June, but then, like clockwork, the Rugby Championship put the bash on that idea and left Coetzee’s men with a symmetrical record of: won two, drawn two and lost two.
Long story short: as a new Bok coach you’re not out of the woods until you’ve negotiated a Rugby Championship. This includes emerging with more wins than losses from the tournament, and without having your pants pulled down in public by the All Blacks putting 50-pointers on your team.
Rassie Erasmus is next on a conveyor belt that specialises in spitting coaches out. How he and the Boks go in the tournament makes this Rugby Championship the most important in years for South Africans as it will be the acid test of whether the Boks really are on the comeback trail we’ve all been holding out for.
Despite the fact that his current record (won two, lost two) is fair to middling at best, few Bok coaches have enjoyed a better honeymoon period than Erasmus, both at SA Rugby and in the minds of the rugby public.
We media types have bored you to tears about the former Springbok flanker’s unprecedented contract and sphere of influence, but to date he has used that preferential treatment – for want of a better phrase – to telling effect in his first few months in charge.
Erasmus’ tenure has been characterised by having a little in it for everyone.
If you like your captaincy appointment significant, Erasmus has obliged. If you like your Bok teams transformed, Erasmus has been your man. If you like your rugby unambiguous and vibrant, Erasmus has been on it. If you like your Bok coach’s answers frank and engaging, Erasmus has done his bit.
Simply put, Erasmus has been way ahead of all of us and the result is the kind of honeymoon period that has seen the same people who derided the idea of Mzwandile Stick as a Bok assistant coach just two years ago prepared to give him a chance in the same set up.
But going into the Rugby Championship Erasmus has a few problems no amount of goodwill can paper over. The first is the composition of the squad he was set to name on Monday.
Said squad was expected to be missing first XV players Duane Vermeulen (club commitments) and Sbu Nkosi (injury), with matchday squad player Warrick Gelant also ruled out with injury and Aphiwe Dyantyi possibly another sickbay doubt if his sparing use in the Super Rugby final is anything to go by.
The first issue is obviously what those players – led by Vermeulen’s ballast and the fearlessness of youth of the other three – bring to Erasmus’ brave new Boks. The second being what the next wave of talent has not been able to do.
Erasmus’ two defeats in charge – losses which had shades of the 2016 Boks about them in their cluelessness – were courtesy of his second stringers, which means he is still at a stage where he can’t trust them to step into the team and step up.
Erasmus’ unspoken, and biggest, problem is the burden of having to beat the All Blacks at least once – which would be the first time in four years – as proof positive that the Boks have what it takes to be competitive against what used to be the old enemy.
To bastardise the EFF’s Julius Malema, it would give us a signal and infuse South African rugby with the requisite confidence on its umpteenth new dawn since 2007.