The cliché goes that there’s nothing as dangerous as a wounded Springbok, but Rassie Erasmus’s team isn’t merely hurt, they’re on life support.
Whether the players now rally to produce a big performance for their coach in Saturday’s match against the All Blacks in Wellington will be telling. In times such as these it’s always important for a coach to have his dressing room.
I say that because Rassie hasn’t displayed unity with his team over the past nine days. He stated that he was embarrassed by their performance against the Pumas in Mendoza, made a raft of changes and then yanked Bongi Mbonambi off before halftime in Saturday’s defeat to Australia in Brisbane.
Asked about the decision, Rassie said that Bongi had emptied his tank and he therefore sent on Malcolm Marx. While Bok forwards coach Matt Proudfoot recently stated that Mbonambi was on Marx’s level, we all know that to be hogwash. They aren’t in the same league and that’s no insult to Mbonambi.
Even so, once you have selected a player, it’s a humiliation if you pull him before he’s even had his halftime orange. By all means do so at the interval, but don’t let the guy walk off the pitch without affording him the dignity of doing so with the group. It may not be intended as such, but it hurts the player’s feelings.
John Mitchell, the Bulls coach who would rather be England’s defensive mastermind, was more blunt in his methods when Ruben van Heerden suffered the fate of being subbed after just 22 minutes in their Super Rugby match against the Jaguares. Mitchell defended the move, saying that the player had been poor and that he as a coach wasn’t in the job of compassion.
Sorry Mitch, but you are when you’re leading men into battle. Solidarity as a team implies compassion and mutual respect. There are ways of getting messages across to players during the match.
As for Mbonambi, what exactly was it that he did wrong? A lineout was stolen early in the first half through a good contest by the Wallabies, not a poor throw. And then there was the throw over the top in the Boks’ 22 that had been meant for a teammate that wasn’t on Mbonambi’s wavelength.
Rassie did say that it wasn’t Mbonambi’s fault, but in a job of his profile it’s not always what you say as opposed to what people, and especially the players, perceive.
In South Africa, there is also the unfortunate political dynamic. The choice of Mbonambi over Marx wasn’t credible from a rugby perspective to begin with in terms of pure ability – again with no disrespect to Mbonambi who appears to be on his way to becoming a decent Test player.
So subbing him in the 35th minute is a miscalculation on more than just one level. The best way for the coach to demonstrate faith in the player would be to select him for the All Blacks match, but we all know a fully fit Marx is likely to start.
The selection for Saturday’s Test will be interesting as the Boks, even after a number of changes, failed to seize the moment against a Wallaby side that had been hugely disrupted by the late withdrawal of Israel Folau, David Pocock and Adam Coleman.
Rassie’s problems extend to the wing following injury to Makazole Mapimpi. The coach is now bound to Kolbe, whose twinkle toes are ultimately unlikely to compensate for his lack of size – if not now, in the long term.
What represents a good enough performance against the All Blacks? This may depend on the team that Steve Hansen picks. Does the All Blacks coach consider the Boks good enough to warrant picking his best side, or will he persevere with experimental moves such as picking Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf ahead of Beauden Barrett?
Let’s hope pride spurs the Boks on to a competitive performance that reflects solidarity with their coach.