Rassie’s trial is the All Blacks, not England

Gavin Rich

With Rassie Erasmus now confirmed as the man responsible for guiding Springbok rugby out of the morass, the pressure is now on.

The timing of the announcement is apt in that it comes in the same week as the England defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield. It was a result that would have given a glimmer of hope to those South Africans who are not aware of how much work Erasmus and his closest assistants Jacques Nienaber and Pieter de Villiers have already been doing behind the scenes.

But while offering the Boks a small glimmer of encouragement, the Edinburgh result should also have served as a reminder that the real long-term challenge facing Erasmus is not England, who come to South Africa for a three-match series in June. They have travelled a long way under the coaching of Eddie Jones, but they are not the number one team in the world and have yet to prove that they can do what the All Blacks can do.

When the Kiwis beat Scotland in a tightly fought game at Murrayfield in November, everyone celebrated the Scotland performance and how close they came against an All Black team that looked out on its feet. The point though is that the All Blacks didn’t play well and yet still won at a venue that was too much of a frontier for England to cross.

Erasmus and his supporters should not fool themselves. Victory over England will be a great first step, but the real challenge for Erasmus is the one that every Bok coach faces, and that is to close the gap on the All Blacks. Even after 27 years of post-isolation where the Kiwis have tended to be the master in battles between the old foe, they are still the measuring stick by which the good Bok coaches are separated from the bad.

Ian McIntosh lost his job after the first post-isolation tour of New Zealand, and although the defeat to Japan was ultimately what undid him, it was his long struggle to beat the All Blacks (he did manage it once – in 2014) that kept Heyneke Meyer chugging along in first gear when he could have been moving faster during the seasons when his team was playing decent rugby.

The task of catching the All Blacks won’t be impossible for Erasmus. Peter de Villiers’ team won three tests in a row against them in 2009 and it wasn’t that long ago. But the thing with the All Blacks is that while the Boks might at last have a coach who is a heavyweight thinker and tactician, the world’s No1 team never allow the grass to grow under their feet.

In an interesting interview he conducted last week with the New Zealand Herald, Steve Hansen admitted that his team looked vulnerable in 2017. But then he also pointed out that in using 45 players across the season, and so seldom having a settled selection, he wittingly or unwittingly ended up testing the underbelly of New Zealand’s depth.

He also said he is working hard on growing his team’s game and looking for new angles and innovations to keep his side ahead. That’s New Zealand rugby for you. They don’t follow, they don’t react. They lead.

If Hansen comes across as being prone to wishful thinking when he says that the difficult 2017 term was good for New Zealand rugby, remember that while the British and Irish Lions played well in the iconic series in New Zealand, it was really the Sonny Bill Williams red card, some uncharacteristic indiscipline and Romaine Poite’s rather eccentric refereeing that prevented the All Blacks from winning.

Even though in some instances they were down to fourth or fifth choice, they still comfortably won The Rugby Championship. While the memory will throw up images of them struggling on the end of year tour, the finer detail that might be missed is that they never lost. The effects of a ridiculous travel schedule did not bite the All Blacks as hard as their fellow southern hemisphere travellers from South Africa, Australia and Argentina.

Those who believe a break in the Kiwi hegemony may be imminent should pause to consider what happened to England this past week and again last year in Ireland. The two defeats on the Jones record were recorded at venues where the opposition were on a hot winning streak at home. Does it matter to the All Blacks whether the team they are playing boast an excellent home record? It doesn’t appear to. They tend to win at those venues even when under-strength, jetlagged or just playing poorly.

And that’s the challenge for Erasmus. The big date on his calendar is the Pool fixture against the All Blacks in next year’s World Cup. There’s lots of catching up to do on a team that is coached by a guy who has been involved with them since 2004, and who has a wealth of players that have been tried at international level, and have been part of winning teams.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • Arch Rautenbach

    Gavin. Under Allister’s coaching you wrote article after article saying it won’t be a realistic expectation to expect the Boks to beat the All Blacks. Is it double standard now, or are you of the opinion that Toetie is an average coach where Rassie is a real heavyweight? Just a question.

    • Sharky

      Everyone who has worked with AC say that he is a nice guy. That is what he is known for. Everyone who has worked with Rassie says that he is a rugby intellectual – his trips to stadia roofs demonstrates his creative and out-of-the-box thinking and his Pro14 coach of the award demonstrates that his meticulous preparation pays dividends.

      So ask yourself – who whould you back to coach the Boks to a win over the ABs – a nice guy or a rugby intellectual?

  • Ringo

    SA’s obsession with the ABs has greatly contributed to our downfall. We were beating everyone around us except the ABs in 2012 – 2014, but no-one was happy.

    Our team got up for one good game last year, against the ABs in Cape Town. The rest of the year was pretty poor (except against the French). It’s become a pattern in the last few years. One massive performance against The Old Enemy and cruise control for the rest of the year.

    I wish the SA media would stop perpetuating this idea that a win against the ABs is the only thing that matters. The only thing that should matter is that our team plays GOOD rugby. If we play good rugby, focusing on our processes, our players, our systems, then no matter who we play against, we’ll win.

    • Sharky

      Totally agree. We have to get our hands firmly on the second place ranking before we aim for the top. And if we keep trying to emulate another team we’ll never be truly great.

    • Wesley

      Well said Ringo. They are the benchmark, but obsession with them have caused the problems. We constantly look at coaches to counter certain AB players with similar types in their respective positions. They got big wings, we should have too. Bruisers upfront? Gotta counter with bigger bruisers etc. And then we get upset when those choices dont match with our gameplan? Coaches should coach smart rugby. Think a way around the problem. Choose a team and develop a gameplan to fit. Hopefully Rassie will do that…

  • Barry Smith

    Fortunately Gavin, Rassie is unlikely to take your advise. You answered your own article in paragraph 5 when you said that it is the job of every Bok coach to narrow the gap on the All Blacks and I suspect that is what he will set out to do – one game at a time. It is a process, not a destination and fortunately I believe he understands that!

  • Gerhard Coetzee

    Rassie and Jaques Nienaber is a great improvement,but I am still worries about the appointment of Sticks as back line coach.He was one of the weak points in the performance of the Boks.The All Blacks would never appoint an inexperienced coach and their succession plan had a lot to do with their success and as the saying goes “to be successful you have to surround you with the best”.Our back line was very static in attack and they hardly displayed any back line moves (there is over 50 back line moves ) and I did not see many from the Boks.The biggest difference between ourselves and the All Backs is their skills level and unfortunately it appears that our coaches from school to provincial and international level does not teach our players the necessary skills.Skills are an integral part of all practice sessions of all of their teams in New Zealand ,whether they at All Black players or not.

    • Barry Smith

      You need to watch the video clip on SSport. Rassie explains Stick will be used to pass on his extensive Sevens experience in teaching players about space and one on one situations. When it is put in that way it makes a lot of sense. He talks about hiring in consultants to fill the gaps, in a seriously narrowed management team. Hope that helps@

    • Sharky

      Yeah, totally agree. Stick is definitely not experienced enough and is without a doubt an affirmative appointment. But who should have been put in his place? I can’t think of any South African who I’d pick. Dick Muir maybe…? Foreigners who come to mind include Mitchell… but he doesn’t play nicely with others. Dave Rennie maybe, but I doubt that SA Rugby have the money to get him out of his current contract (unless he has an international appointment escape clause). Robbie Deans?

      Davids and Ackerman are also both good coaches who are not in the mix, but they would both be better suited to taking up a forwards coaching role rather than the backline one. That said they must must MUST!! be brought in to consult (or at least learn) cos they should both be part of the Boks succession plan.

      On the fringes I would also definitely have the likes of Matfield, Fourie du Preez, John Smit and Jean de Villiers in from time-to-time to impart some know-how and wisdom. They all have such experience and intellectual capital – it would be a shame not to utilise that.

  • Slakkie G

    The Government is the problem…

    We have the best players in the world, we are better than any team, i agree that we should not focus on the AB’s we already have alot of AB’s supporters in South Africa.

Comments are closed.