New Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi leads the team out prior to their first training session in Johannesburg. Kolisi will become the 61st Springbok captain and he will also become the first black South African to lead the Boks in a Test match. Photo: Kim Ludbrook/EPA
Rassie Erasmus had his first hit-out as Springbok coach in Washington last night.

Short of propping him up on pillows and handing him a cup of Milo, the bosses couldn’t have given him a more comfortable start. Away from the pressures of home, played in the dead of night (for South Africans) against a pick-up Welsh team, expectations were moderate.

Which is just as well. When the Boks get back to town, the heat will be on. First order of business against England is for Erasmus to bash the Boks back into shape. The sticklers among us will talk about quality and what have you, but for most, the biggest expectation will be to get back to winning.

Losing became a habit during the miserable past two years. Fans became angry, many drifted off.

It’s Erasmus’ job to rekindle the fire, both among the players and among supporters, who looked on in shock at the horror show. Something had to give and ultimately it was Allister Coetzee who was shown the door.

It’s been a largely smooth run for Erasmus so far. His initial Bok squad was so large, he pleased practically everyone. Chopping it down from 46 to 30 will prove more challenging and yield more bleats from the public.

Easily the best thing he’s done so far is appoint Siya Kolisi as captain. Coetzee missed the trick last year, which damns his legacy.

Erasmus could have gone for Duane Vermeulen, but Kolisi represents the future, as does Warren Whiteley, who will jockey with Kolisi for the permanent captaincy once he returns from injury. Then again, if Kolisi leads the Boks to a series triumph, he’d have offered a compelling case to retain the job on a full-time basis.

Not only is Kolisi a hard-as-nails loose forward, he’s respected among the players themselves and is a powerful totem of local rugby’s efforts to transform. Don’t underestimate how massively symbolic his appointment is: he demonstrably proves that black players can break through at elite level.

England are in a bit of a mess. They’ve been rocked by injury upon injury and took a hiding against the Barbarians at Twickenham last weekend. Pat Lam’s fun XV trained on beers and enjoyed a fancy-dress party in the build-up, which worked wonders as they put more points on England than anyone ever has at HQ.

Similar preparation probably won’t do for the Boks, but you imagine that if an exciting back three can be put away, it would give England kittens. Last week their defence was all over the place and they leaked nine tries against the free-wheeling Baabaas.

The team, the mood and the occasion will be massively different for the first Test at Ellis Park, but self-doubt must surely creep into the England package, especially as they have now lost four on the bounce.

The one thing England won’t be is soft. Their players are big, fit and strong and won’t be cowed by South Africa’s reputation for getting stuck in. England’s set piece is seldom less than concrete, although their ground game at the breakdown has been contrary and there is uncertainty about their best midfield.

We shall see.

Settle in for fun and games, especially with Eddie Jones in town. He’s a past master of mind games and is guaranteed to fire several bullets Erasmus’ way. Listen carefully and you’ll catch the subtle cutting remark or the throwaway line intended to send a message. Jones does smack talk better than most.

He’ll talk up the Boks as favourites in the hope that they believe it, but it’s not a message he’ll send to his own team. Jones desperately wants to make history by coaching the first England team to a series win in SA and he’ll do everything to achieve it.

The picture for the Boks is far rosier than last year. Scrumhalf may be iffy, but there are options in every other position, with pace to burn and several exciting new faces who could stake a claim for a long-term role. There are just 17 Tests between now and the World Cup.

Winning the next three would constitute a massive statement.

Sunday Tribune

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