It is claimed that sport mimics life and it has to be said that Rassie Erasmus’ entrée to the Springbok coaching job is rather like Cyril Ramaphosa’s “New Dawn” for the country.
Many see a bright, new age dawning but an equal amount are as pessimistic as ever about the state of Springbok rugby.
On the upside, the two come-from-behind victories over England were marvellous, but they were bookended by miserable performances against Wales in Washington DC and England at Newlands.
Rassie did a lot to buoy the optimists, especially with the way he grasped the transformation nettle, but for the cynics there was still too much wrong to begin believing a great regeneration had begun.
Chief among those was the dismal showing by the Junior Springboks at the World Rugby Under-20 Championship in France.
SARU’s PR machine tried hard, as it should, to put some gloss on a narrow loss to England in the semi-finals, and the fact that the Baby Boks hit back to beat their New Zealand counterparts for the bronze medal, but overall the expedition was disappointing.
These young players are the next generation of Springboks and all the faults of the last two abysmal years (P25 W11 D2 L12) were evident. In spite of a thorough build-up, the youngsters appeared out of condition, lacking in nous and skills, as opposed to physical aggressiveness, and apprehensive as to how they wanted to play.
Just as with their seniors, it was only when stung into desperation that they showed glimpses of what they might be capable of.
The Junior Boks have not won their tournament since 2012 and the worry is that the defects are also evident in national schools teams.
This would indicate that the maladies one sees in national teams are systemic – that the structure of South African rugby is not geared to producing a sufficient number of perfectly-rounded players possessing the mental and physical abilities to be the best over a sustained period of time.
Could it be that South Africa’s much-vaunted schoolboy nursery is not all it is cracked up to be?
Recent outcomes would indicate this to be the case. SA rugby has long been aware that a small portion of “rugby schools” produce most of our Springboks, but the problem is that the type of player emerging from this intense cauldron is consistently being shown up to be lacking in the qualities needed.
It is an incontestable fact that the advent of schools festivals, the televised Premier schools matches and a keenly-watched ranking system has seen a shift to a certain type of player to collectively make up a certain type of team.
The mind-set is that bigger is better and, allied to a good goal-kicker, the aim is to bludgeon opponents into submission.
Top schools set great store by their position on the ladder and winning far exceeds any notion of playing the game for fun.
The upshot is players whose skills are lacking, who are not required to think and who are used to being physically dominant… until they come up against opponents who are just as big, just as angry, just as fierce, but possessing more skills.
Nick Mallett, when he was the Bok coach (1997 to 2000) once did an interview with me in which he stated that “South Africa must get over the myth that we are bigger and stronger than the rest.”
It is alarming that this attitude still exists. For many boys in the top schools, the schoolboy experience is so exalted, their own status so idolised, their abilities so overblown that they can’t cope when they reach the hurly-burly of senior rugby and run into unawed opponents.
Another great flaw is clearly the selection process. An indicator is the low percentage of schoolboy internationals and Under-20s who reach full Springbok status, while SA Rugby has never committed, for instance, that the Under-20s coach is destined to be the next national coach.
An undeniable example of the benefits of long-term planning is Jake White winning the World Cup in 2007 with the bulk of the team coming from his Under 20s, plus the seniors who were with him for the four-year journey.
A recent investigation by a British journalist into what makes New Zealand supreme concluded that the great separator is skill – i.e. the accuracy and repetitiveness of all the diverse factors that go into making a winning team.
Of course, we possess wonderfully talented players who will soon again be on display when the Craven Week is staged at Paarl Boys High, but hopefully the key “selector” will be Rassie Erasmus singling out those who he feels might be of use to him in two or three years’ time; individuals with superior skills rather than those riding on the wave of a big, strong team.
The likes of Handré Pollard, Malcolm Marx, Warrick Gelant, the Du Preez brothers Jean-Luc and Dan, RG Snyman, Sibusiso Nkosi, Curwin Bosch and Ivan van Zyl are recent “Baby Bok” graduates, but for the Springboks to be great again we need more.