When Eddie Jones came to recce our stadiums in January, he was the coach of the two-time defending Six Nations champions, the Springboks were coming off two terrible seasons and England were the hot favourites to whitewash South Africa in a three-Test series that begins at Ellis Park in two weeks.
Clearly, four months is a long time in rugby! SA Rugby have since appointed Rassie Erasmus and they’ve gone out of their way to give the new Bok coach everything he needs to get South Africa back to the top of world rugby.
For my very first Bok camp I was allowed to take 25 guys, which made it difficult when Hanyani Shimange stood on De Wet Barry’s foot, Ashwin Willemse did his knee in Kimberley and then Faan Rautenbach had to go for a knee op. Erasmus has been granted a 43-man squad and he’s been allowed to pick overseas-based players, even if they don’t have the minimum number of Test caps.
It’s great news if you’re a Bok supporter because, if you listen to what’s coming out of SA Rugby, all the pieces have been put in place to be successful from day one.
You have to compliment SA Rugby for doing what was needed – maybe we should also credit Allister Coetzee and the letter he wrote for motivating these changes. The positive communications from the camp are a complete turnaround from Coetzee’s term when he raised issues related to not having enough time to prepare for the Ireland series and not having his preferred staff.
Erasmus would have been tapped on the shoulder months before he was reappointed to the role he had prior to joining Munster, so the Boks have a coach who is well prepared, and he’s said there’s no need to worry about meeting transformation targets or about injuries to important players like Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.
Even though he’s lost the services of scrum specialist Pieter de Villiers, he’s retained Coetzee’s forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot, who Erasmus originally recruited to the Stormers. And the Boks will also benefit from national training camps and the buy-in from the provinces on minimum conditioning standards.
As a Bok supporter, there’s lots of cause for optimism. Erasmus keeps instilling confidence in the way he’s preparing and what he’s saying, and that’s why the excitement is building for the opening of the June Test window.
It’s definitely not what Eddie Jones would have wanted to hear. A year ago, England was touted as the team to beat the All Blacks. They were so eager to test themselves against New Zealand that they requested a match against the world champions which failed to materialise.
England’s success under Jones came because the RFU gave the coach everything he asked for. He brought in Glenn Ella and now Scott Wisemantel to help on attack, scrum guru Marc dal Maso, he’s got Cherylle Calder for the eye gym, and he’s brought in Dean Benton, the Brumbies conditioning coach. England got all of those things right and it seems that’s where South Africa is now.
When supporters talk about ‘what’s wrong with our rugby’, they often talk about what happens on the field – do we kick too much, and why are we getting pushed back in the scrums? But it’s the off-field things that you need to have in place that impact the players on the field.
If the wives and kids come to the game are they happy and looked after? When those things are in place, then you have a content player who plays better. It sounds like a very basic thing, but it’s the truth. So when the coach is able to pick the players and support staff he wants, then we’re getting those off-the-field things right.
If I had written this column a year ago, saying we should beat England would have sounded like a pipe dream.
In 2016, England were unbeaten. Now they’ve lost three in a row, they came fifth in the Six Nations and their defence coach is leaving. The power balance in this series has shifted 180 degrees from one team being confident and wanting to play the world champions, to the other team rediscovering confidence and wanting to get stuck in.
Last year, everyone was writing that England were invincible and that we needed change, from the Boks to the Bulls. Now we’ve got that with a new national coach and a Kiwi coach at the Bulls. That’s brought a new energy and now the braai talk is, “why didn’t Adriaan Strauss get picked?” which is a big change from “why did we pick Adriaan Strauss!?”