What is Rassie doing?

Simnikiwe Xabanisa

If ever there was an example of how Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’ thought processes sow confusion in the minds of most South African rugby fans, it has to be the team he has selected to face Australia tomorrow.

Having planned to experiment against the Wallabies after the Boks bullied Argentina in Durban, the comprehensive defeat to the same opponents a week later in Mendoza forced him to telegraph that tomorrow’s game in Brisbane had suddenly become a must-win thing.

But then he selected what looked and felt like an experimental team.

Even with that outrageous goose-step for a prop, Beast Mtawarira is nobody’s idea of an impact player; Malcolm Marx – wonky lineout throwing and all – is rightly regarded as the country’s premier hooker, not a bencher; captain Siya Kolisi is back at openside flank after being called a blindside just a month ago; the Pieter-Steph du Toit experiment at blindside flank remains exactly that, an experiment; Elton Jantjies is back, which should get his haircut reviewers hot and bothered; and the Boks’ most experienced current centre pairing (Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel) will start their first game together six matches into Erasmus’ regime.

That said, most of the queries above can be countered.

Starting loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff’s performances off the bench have blown the selectors’ door off it’s hinges, one left shoulder at a time; hooker Bongi Mbonambi has been nothing short of sensational in the games he’s started this year; the absence of a specialist openside flanker in the pack is a challenge to the forwards to be as physical as they are clinical at the breakdown; Du Toit’s industry and availability as a lineout option is the nearest thing we have to a proper blindside while Jean-Luc du Preez recuperates; and Handre Pollard’s errant kicking has frittered away whatever stability he supposedly brought to the team.

Looking at those pros and cons, there’s a lot to read into Erasmus’ thinking – maybe even a little too much.

The first is that, clearly, he has a blank cheque with regards to his job safety and freedom to build a squad for the World Cup. It’s not often that a coach with a record of three defeats from five matches can “afford” to experiment by leaving some of his best players on the bench and handing out yet another debut (Cheslin Kolbe) for a match his side must win.

Strangely, though, there’s a victory of sorts for Erasmus in his quest to build a strong squad. Imagine the psychological boost to the many “second best” players in tomorrow’s starting line-up to know that it is they who will start a game they can’t afford to lose.

That said, the fact that there have been debutants in almost every Test played so far almost puts Erasmus in the same WhatsApp group as one Rudolf Straeuli, who cast the net so wide in preparation for the 2003 World Cup he didn’t know who to select by the time it came.

The wide casting of said net means Erasmus is also collecting a few rogue selections along the way, looking at the likes of Schalk Brits, Ox Nche, Curwin Bosch and Marvin Orie. And speaking of that, one has to ask what the thinking is behind Kolbe’s selection.

Ostensibly he is there as the backup fullback and a sometime wing, but what does that mean about the resolution to blood Damian Willemse as a fullback while he waits to take over at flyhalf? Also, doesn’t Kolbe’s pending debut tomorrow rob Willemse of precious game time in his crash-course to be in the starting line-up probably by next year?

The mildly (for now) disconcerting thing about the only constant in Erasmus’ line-ups being change is the fact that his team is seemingly not being built around the old spine of a hooker, eighthman, scrumhalf, flyhalf and inside centre, which tends to be a non-negotiable at international level.

Sure, injury, form and availability have been mitigating factors, but other than Marx and Duane Vermeulen in the positions above, do we have an inkling of who the others would be?

While it is reassuring that Erasmus has a mind that’s never seen the inside of a box, I have to admit to being as clueless about what his ultimate plan is as I was watching those disco lights at Free State Stadium all those years ago.

- Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Let's chat

  • Barry Smith

    Yes, agreed, it does not look at a glance, like a must win side, but he clearly has the confidence in them to get the job done!
    I suspect he is trying to keep the balance of his stocks as fresh as posdible for next weekends outing against the All Blacks and dare I say, the hope of a win, or at least the avoidance of a 50 point hiding as dished out last year!
    On the Willemse/ Kolbe debate, I suspect the penny has dropped that Willemse is still a little young and inexperienced, whilst Kolbe is in a similar mould, but has more maturity and experience!
    I find it rather refreshing having a coach in our corner, who for a change has the opposition guessing!

    • charlie harvey

      Think Rugby World Cup 2019 – what is the best that South Africa can do? Get out of their pool? No longer a seeded team we must struggle against the ABs and Italy. On current form we will be hard pressed to be the Italians. Going in to this Championship Rassie had 9 games to build a team with some experience. He had 788 caps in his first squad, the ABs have twice that. Experience, or lack thereof has been glaringly obvious in the stupid mistakes made by this team. It has to be said that very few scribes in SA will admit that Kolisi is finding the captaincy a burden. He is a fine if patchy player, but right now he is struggling with the leadership role. The 30-minute lineout disaster is just one example of a lack of clear leadership and communication. Because of the ineptitude of SARU and just as de Villiers appointment stole from Heyneke Meyer, Coetzee’s appointment stole from Rassie Erasmus. Taking that further, the SARU masters of bungling have never had any clear plan or path for rugby at any level. So to expect a succession plan from people who have no real management training or experience, is like expecting a baby to make its own bottle.
      Will Rassie get fired if he loses to the All Blacks and loses return games to the Wallabies and ABs? SARU cannot afford to pay out a 6-year contract (who is the idiot that handed that out?).
      Why is Rassie making out as if he is on thin ice? Perhaps The Bulls are pawing at his door?

    • Mike Stoop

      I think that Rassie has himself and his players guessing.

      Kolbe and Willemse are hardly in a similar mold (not mould). Kolbe can probably walk under Willemse’s arm. Unfortunately, at this level, size is somewhat important, especially if everything else is equal.

      • Chris

        Kolbe has some very effective tackles in his highlight reel. He always struck me as a guy who enjoyed tackling big guys. Got a bit of a scrumhalf streak in him.
        I would actually love to see him tried out at that position. He would keep the defence arround the fringes very honest.

  • Johan Cloete

    We will only be the best once all political interference is removed and the coach is allowed to pick the best of the best. Not because of the colour of his skin but because of his ability to be the best.

    Then only then will we be the best again.

    • SweetAz

      Whilst I agree with you its actually no longer an issue for the Bok Coach. He is indeed allowed to pick the best of the best, BUT herein lies the rub. The best is no longer in the room,—-the best gave up on rugby sometime over the last 15 years and decided to do something else or move on to greener pastures. Hence we are in this situation where the choices left for the Bok Coach are the results of a succession of “affirmed” national age group teams whilst the hundreds of first-team players from Grey College, Affies, Selborne, Monument, Paul Roos etc etc etc moved on with their lives.
      Watch this game and then in about 6 or 7 years ask yourself how many of them are playing for the Boks to get your answer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRjmzbLAMHc. You see the insidious evil of affirmative action in Rugby cant be measured or debated around the Springbok Squad,—–it’s hidden in the background noise of hundred of Schoolboys who voted with their feet.

      • OldGitEd

        That sounds just about right.

      • Mike Stoop

        Uncomfortable, but someone had to say it.

    • Louis

      This is really getting old hat now, please man.

  • Albert

    Rassie has proven to be innovative, sometimes to the extreme. We all remember the lights on the roof in Bloem. I think having someone innovative as the Director of Rugby can only be a good thing, as long as he changes our rugby from the bottom to the top.

    On this weekends selections, I mentioned in a previous post that I think some of them are inspiring. In modern rugby the replacements are more than just impact players. I really like having such a strong experienced bench. We have been starting slow, and the likes of Kitshoff, Du Toit, Mbonambi and Wilco Louw have been immense when coming on. It is clear that Rassie is looking for a fast start and then hopefully bring on the likes of Beast, Flouw, Pollard, Marx and Wilco to finish the game with all their experience is smart. But like everything else, if we lose, then it will be viewed as a failed experiment.

    Having said that, I agree with Barry Smith above regarding Willemse vs Kolbe. Kolbe has been performing so well for a wining team. Willemse is very talented but oh so young and raw. He might develop into a fine 15 or 10, but he needs time. For all those obsessed with size…Damien McKenzie. Enough said.

    Good luck Springboks, I’ll be watching through my fingers tomorrow…although without Pocock I am hoping De Allende has a bit more time to place the ball for Faf.

  • John Comyn

    I think his “win at all costs” remark was an emotional reaction. He was seriously annoyed after the Puma’s game based on the Boks performance and a chap called Angus Gardner’s performance. I think he has reverted back to his original plan for this tour. I know that does not explain Kolbe’s call-up but Kriel was always going to be playing in this team as was PSTD always going to be blind flank. Like he said Bongi and Kitsie deserve a start and this is the ideal opportunity to reward them. These are two players that will not let the side down so there is not much risk. Admittedly he has got lucky with Pocock’s withdraw which mitigates the lack of a fetcher. Oh and it is a very strong bench. If I were Simnikiwe I’d be asking what the hell is Malherbe and Whitely doing there.

    • SweetAz

      My biggest worry is that they seem to have forgotten the “Glen Jackson Factor” and his overly anxious reffing of the breakdown coupled with a total ignorance of what goes on in a scrum. The man also has a depth perception problem regarding the offside line and an inability to pick up a forward pass,—its no wonder Specsavers is a major sponsor, we can only hope and pray he uses their services. I would have been more comfortable with a French referee.

  • Chris Mouton

    Hahaha! Rassie has us all guessing, to be honest. At least he is trying some new things and is willing to change things up. The bench players will certainly want to make their mark, especially Mbonambi and Kitsoff. It bothers me that we don’t have a specialist fetcher and that we don’t have a decent backup for Faf. I sincerely hope that Jantjies has a strong game tomorrow. We all know what he can be capable of, but he has been shaky in the national colours. Good luck, Bokke!

    • Andrew Howe

      Cronje is more reliable than Faf , Faf has moments of brilliance , where as Cronje is steady and reliable – ask Ackerman .

      • Mike Stoop

        Agreed. On the reliable. You just forgot the slow and predictable part.

    • Albert

      There is no denying Jantjies has talent, but I fear he is like Cipriani with all that talent being driven by a slightly fragile mind space. However, Rassie has already commented on Jantjies mental issues affecting his game, and I feel he will help him as much as possible. As Rassie said himself, you don’t get your team to 3 finals in a row without being close to achieving something great.

      • humblepie

        Yeah, Elton really deserves a coach that backs him for a change. The interaction with Toetie was a disaster. Toetie was supposed to be a leader and a mentor for his players and he failed miserably with Elton. Fortunately that chapter is closed.
        All the best for Rassie and the Bokke tomorrow.

        • SweetAz

          Let me fix it for you,——Elton really needs a daddy figure to help him put his big boy pants on.—There we go, fixed.

          • John Comyn

            Shame poor lad. Maybe Daddy and tell him to grow-up and get a decent haircut?

  • Morne

    2 losses from 5 games get your facts straight..the players must be better ..take more responsibility..who makes the tackles who kicks the goals..? Pick the best 30 players they must do the job.

  • Pieter O

    Rassie must take a team of 31 players to the world cup. 50% must be players of color. It is a given that by the time of the world cup between 9 and 12 contenders will not be available due to injury. The coach’s problem is that he does not know who those injured players will be or in which position. It is possible that three of the injured could be from the same position. Given these facts, it is from a world cup perspective very important to determine who the number one to four in each position is. The only way to determine that is to give players exposure in a test match. Rassie’s philosophy at this stage is clearly to give more players less opportunities than to give more opportunities to less players, because if he does the latter, he will not achieve his goal of identifying the best players per position. The coach will take five props, three hookers, three scrumhalves and probably three flyhalves to the world cup. That implies that he will need at least four utilities that can cover more than one position. Therefore it is necessary to experiment with Willemse (10, 12 and 15), Pollard (10 and 12), Kolbe (11 and 15), Pieter-Steph, etc). There are twelve tests left before the world cup. He will try to fine tune his final team in the last three or four tests. That leaves him with eight tests to get everything in place.

    • SweetAz

      Yep and it’s exactly what he has been saying in his press conferences,—unfortunately, some rugby “journalists” have comprehension issues. I’m just wondering if he shouldn’t take a look at Johan Goosen, he should be ready by next year and was one of the most naturally gifted flyhalves I have seen in SA rugby in the last 10 years.

  • Andrew Howe

    Support , give space to Rassie , his predecessors have been a disaster – Toetie , Meyer and De Villiers . There was never any continuity thought of let alone planned for . Jake got the world cup but his comments / attitude since then have made him sound devisive . Go BOKKE .

    • Mike Stoop

      Jake calls a spade a spade. Maybe we need a little more of that. De Villiers’ tenure was far from disastrous. His Springboks actually beat the All Blacks three times in 2009. He also beat a strong British Lions side. If you don’t want to give him credit for that, at least credit him with the wisdom to get out of the way. If we could get politicians in SA to do that, the country will thrive on all levels and in all endeavors.

  • Nic Terblanche

    One must understand that Rassie cannot select a side as he wishes. We know that he has to adhere to some directives. But that is a given and one that can be overcome is you look at the quality of players that are available for selection. But what I will never understand is the selection of players out of their specialist positions. A number 6 has a very specific job – is our man for tomorrow the most suitable? The day when someone decided that Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel is good enough to be Springbok centres was the start of a tragic story. Kriel excelled at fullback – if you study his positioning in defence you will immediately see that he is uncertain. de Allende should taken wrestling – simply because that is what he is doing all the time.

    • Mike Stoop

      Pick any centre. It makes no difference. None of them are even of an acceptable standard. Fact is, we don’t really churn out good centres in any significant numbers. Maybe it is because we are so obsessed with pedigree. When you look for a young centre, you first try to sign someone who played for SA Schools or u/20’s. If someone picked him to play there, he has to be good. Nobody bothers with the club players, who may have developed a year or two later than the schoolboy, u/20 or Varsity Cup stars. Our problem is probably that our scouts/coaches/managers or whoever are the talent spotters, just suck at their jobs.

      Statistically, it is impossible that a country that produces six top international locks at the same time, cannot produce two international centres, one international flyhalf and one international scrumhalf of acceptable (not even top) quality. It just boggles the mind.

      • SweetAz

        Go take a look at this guy’s Youtube Channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1slNCu1MlaoH7F8zmxETEg/videos specifically his schoolboy rugby tournament. You will find all your missing centres, scrumhalves, flyhalves etc. That’s where the problem lies and originates, between first team rugby and National Age Group Selection those “selection policies” kick into gear and decimate the stocks.

        • Mike Stoop

          Like I said earlier: Uncomfortable, but it has to be said. That is exactly why everybody is so obsessed with pedigree. Pedigree has become the excuse for not looking any further than the national age group sides. That is also why some players play Varsity Cup for six years nowadays. There used to be restrictions, but for obvious reasons many sides could not make the demographic numbers.

  • Herman Schroder?

    What is Rassie doing ?? He doesn’t know himself is the regrettable answer. I was one of AC’s biggest critics during his Bok stint but if you consider that RE has been given all the tools and carte blanche to do what ever he wants he has failed miserably.

    I’ve been preaching that we must not bring in these overseas players but develop from within. Apart from saving our bacon in the first two England tests both Faf and Willie especially seem to have their thoughts on club rugby not test match stuff. Flo Louw is missing in action every week and Kolbe ( In his first start in fairness ) has not done anything that I’ve haven’t seen our local boys do, some even more so. Even DV for me is a spent force. Toulouse saw he was past his best. He impressed in the first two England tests and like most disappeared in the third test. He also appears reluctant to really commit ala AB de Villiers. This is not the way to build a cohesive team culture through continuity. Rassie should know better.

    I know I am posting this after this mornings pathetic effort by the Boks but all the signs were already there in chunks.Three come from behind lucky wins in 7 games up to now, add the two AB games and England first up on the EOYT and you may as well pencil in 3 wins in 9 tests. Aussie here at home could go either way, so at best 4 out of ten or 40% win ratio. Worst of all there has been NO visible improvement or anything resembling a clear game plan.

    If we play like this next week all we can pray is for the AB’s to be merciful. Heaven help us. Cheers.

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