Once asked about the state of the Irish team, he responded thus: “It is always interesting when the tide goes out to see who is swimming in the nude.”
His point was that no matter how good things appeared, the real telling was in how the team shaped. Would they succeed or would they be exposed?
And so we come to the Springboks.
Rassie Erasmus selected a formidable squad this week. There’s a little bit of flash, a lot of firepower. There’s good energy, too, the happy hangover from Erasmus’ appointment not having quite subsided.
There were encouraging signs against England mid-year and although two of his four Tests were lost, against Wales and against England (in the third match of the series), these came when the Boks mixed and matched their selection. No need for panic.
The number that should stick in Erasmus’ mind is 15, for that is how many matches remain before the start of the 2019 World Cup. He still has time to tinker, but not much. If Damien Willemse is to feature in Japan, he must be thrust into the thick of it now. If Marco van Staden is to do more than carry tackle bags, he must be given a crack. These are important decisions.
The World Cup will be no place for newbies. The Boks must arrive a grizzled bunch, ready for the dreadnoughts.
Before then is the matter of the Rugby Championship. This time last year, the Boks were fresh off a comfortable 3-0 whipping of France. Expectations were high. And then came September 16 at North Harbour Stadium. The All Blacks were brutal and the Boks were handed their backsides in a record 57-0 defeat.
That team featured some proper meneere that day, too: Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Beast Mtawarira and Siya Kolisi among them.
It said something for their resolution that they eked out a draw against Australia in their next match and, unfathomably, then went mano a mano with the All Blacks in Cape Town, losing by a single point.
The Boks are nothing if not maddeningly inconsistent.
Given how the team has waxed in waned in recent years, it’s not unreasonable to expect the Boks to win at least three of their six Rugby Championship fixtures - as a bare minimum. Yet if they are to continue the promising Erasmus trajectory, we ought to expect more. The Boks must win their home matches and claim at least a single away scalp, preferably one of Australia or New Zealand.
Things have been bleak since the halcyon days of 2009, when the Boks scored three consecutive wins over the All Blacks. In the eight years since, just two of 17 Tests have been won against the world’s number one team. What was once a fierce rivalry has become a procession.
Erasmus is no miracle man, but he brings much to the party, not least a pragmatic nature blended with a maverick spirit. He is fresh and innovative and won’t be afraid to try new things. It’s exactly what the Boks require, especially as there were real signs in the past Super Rugby season that our players are trying to do more with the ball. Imagination is now part of the package.
Much of the Bok team is settled. You could easily name eight or nine of the 15 players you’d ideally start with at the World Cup. It’s the others where it’s a little greyer. What is the right composition of the backrow? Which is our best centre combination? What about the bench, where we need excellent scrumhalf and back three support?
There’s no doubt the Rugby Championship will spit out several players not cut out for the job. This is no bad thing if Erasmus is to get a handle on who’s who.
Argentina loom in Durban next week. They were okay in Super Rugby, but rubbish in the mid-year internationals. There must be no mucking about; the Boks must lay down a marker and get them out of there.
As the show rolls on, we’ll soon find out, as per Francis, who’s wearing no clothes.