JOHANNESBURG - Friday marks the one-year countdown to South Africa’s first match at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Chillingly, that fixture will be against the All Blacks. These are worrying times for the Springboks and their supporters.
The bright early rays of promise have fast given way to gloom. Even Rassie Erasmus, the vibrant coach, has begun to talk about the possibility of being fired. The coaching job has always come with a hangman’s noose, but Erasmus’ remark was uttered with almost indecent haste. We usually allow our coaches to stew a little. And then they get fired.
History, tradition and the deep-rooted infrastructure of the game across South Africa dictates that the Springboks should never be ranked lower than third. Yet, here we are, seventh, and not looking like we deserve to be much higher.
We can point to issues with the overseas player drain, the make-up of tournaments, the quality of coaching and the like, but much of the blame must be laid at the players’ doors. When knock-ons, wrong options and brain implosions become stock-in-trade, these point to players being ill-equipped for elite-level rugby.
There is a terrible looseness about how the Springboks play. There’s no lack of courage or conviction, but much of it is rooted in desperation. It manifests in many of the decisions, which are panic-based and lack assurance.
We’ve become soft-try merchants, as we saw with Bongi Mbonambi’s overthrow (coupled with Siya Kolisi’s sleepy reaction) that led to Matt Toomua’s gift try against Australia last weekend. And, so it goes.
The real worry is how to bolster the current squad. You could perhaps name three overseas-based players who deserve a look-in, but for the most part, the Bok squad contains the best players. Interestingly, only four remain from the team which beat the All Blacks at home in 2014.
That team had several things the current squad do not: a settled front row – Beast Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers, perhaps the best one-two-three combo of recent years – a stormtrooper at number eight (Duane Vermeulen), a balanced, dangerous centre combination (Jean de Villiers and Jan Serfontein) and Bryan Habana. In Handre Pollard, they also had a flyhalf who was young, fit and fearless; everything he no longer is.
It’s difficult to know from where South Africa will draw hope heading to the World Cup. The squad is callow, although thankfully with more cumulative caps than the bedraggled lot who went down 57-0 to the All Blacks last year.
After yesterday, the Boks have just two more opportunities to beat New Zealand before the World Cup. This is essential, both for their own confidence and to place doubt in the minds of the champions, who will again go in as overwhelming favourites.
Thank you SA 🇿🇦🇿🇦🙏🏼🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/MqUcMWQQx6
Coaches like to talk of building, but fast turnarounds can be engineered, as we saw when the Boks played the All Blacks to a standstill just three weeks after their greatest humiliation last year.
Erasmus must press the fast-forward button on what he wants to achieve. The backrow and midfield are still wonky, several of SA’s best players are adrift and there’s a palpable lack of clarity in execution.
He’s no miracle man, but somehow Erasmus must get the engine firing. Sentiment be damned. It’s time for straight talking and tough decisions. Otherwise, the exit door beckons.