DURBAN - All this fuzzy talk of the restoration of the rivalry with the All Blacks is great, but it should not cloud the fact that the Springboks blew it at Loftus. Unbelievably so.
They thought they had won it. Instead of keeping their eyes on the road and their hands upon the wheel, to borrow from Jim Morrison in Roadhouse Blues, they started focusing on the scoreboard, and they liked what they saw, they thought the job was done...
If not all of the players, for Malcolm Marx did not look pleased to be jerked, then certainly the coach. And the job should have been done. The Boks may have to wait a long time for anther golden opportunity to put the All Blacks to the sword, and they could have done it handsomely if they had just kept the foot on the throat.
Some have said the Boks choked. I don’t think that was the case... it was not a lack of self belief or failure in confidence that was the problem, it was the opposite. They choked on their arrogance in believing they had won the game at the three-quarter mark.
The big accusation from annoyed fans is that Rassie Erasmus cocked it up by emptying his bench when the coast seemed to be clear for the Boks at 31-13 with 15 minutes to go. Quite possibly, but to my mind the substitutions issue is only part of the wider malaise that hit the Boks - the fatal belief that they were over the hills with the spoils and far away.
It could probably be summed up by the big grin sported by Faf de Klerk when he came off, his hands aloft applauding the crowd. Yes, he had played an excellent game but you don’t exude an air of triumph until the champagne is popped in the change-room, especially against the All Blacks, the masters at shifting up a gear in the last 10 minutes.
There was also sloppy play from the Boks in the closing stages - such as the forwards tripping over each other in fumbling the receipt of a kick-off - which was not there for 65 immaculate minutes; discipline on defence went AWOL, with both wings falling into the old trap of leaving too much space on the outside, and Elton Jantjies got his tackling technique all wrong in trying to stop an All Black charge on the line.
Which bring us to the substitution business. Not one substitute played badly when he came on, in fact they looked sharp, notably Damian Willemse and Embrose Papier. But what happened in those final mad minutes at Loftus is not about how individual Boks fared, it is about how the team dynamic changed.
Even if it is only in the team’s subconscious, something changes when a winning side undergoes mass changes at a vital stage of the game. There can be a shift in focus and concentration. The collective eye can move off the ball, the distraction can cause the foot to come off the pedal.
The thing with substitutions is that the coach does not have to make them. If the ship is charging full steam to safe harbour, then let it steam away. You bring the substitutions on to change the game when you are losing, and to give players game time when the game truly is won on the scoreboard, which is never the case against the All Blacks.
Bringing on the bench is a gamble, so don’t gamble unless you have to. I think Erasmus bought on the bench because he believed the game was won, and perhaps also because he was sensitive to the fact that he had started the match with only three black players, and his bench happened to be full of black players.
This makes sense if we go back to Erasmus’ post-match press conference after the victory over Australia in Port Elizabeth. He did not empty his bench that day, and he was asked by a reporter why he had not given game time to Willemse and Papier.
Erasmus was clearly irritated and for the first time since he has been Bok coach he answered a question tersely. “You don’t have to make substitutions. Sometimes it is not necessary,” Erasmus said.
A week later, Erasmus, probably having stewed on that perceived criticism, made sweeping changes when he did not have to ... It is hardly inconceivable that Erasmus felt pressurised into making the changes. There are realities that challenge the Bok coach all the time, realities that no other coach in world sport has to face.