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.