CAPE TOWN - One scenario from their defeat in Brisbane against Australia that should raise that question was the decision to hook starting No 2 Bongi Mbonambi off the Lang Park pitch in the 35th minute. The fact that he left the field right after a botched lineout that led to a try for the Wallabies would imply that his early departure wasn’t purely a tactical decision.
It implies that Mbonambi was blamed for the mistake - even though Rassie Erasmus later said that skipper Siya Kolisi, who called the lineout, was in the wrong - and even more bizarre is the fact that Erasmus said afterwards that the Stormers front-rower was “struggling”, hence the decision to send Malcolm Marx on before halftime.
“After 30 minutes, I asked our fitness coach how Bongi’s doing and he said Bongi was struggling,” Erasmus said. “So the decision to replace him was taken before that overthrow at the lineout. I’ll never replace a player solely because he missed his target at a lineout.
“It’s a learning curve for Bongi ahead of the World Cup. We know Malcolm Marx is going to be the first-choice hooker, but if he gets injured at the World Cup, Bongi will know how to handle the pressure.”
If his match fitness was at all a concern, why start him then in a game that was considered a must-win following the defeat in Mendoza? And if it wasn’t picked up, is that any better?
Whatever the reason was, it looks bad. And knocking a player’s confidence with a move like that can never be a good thing, especially since Erasmus has said that Mbonambi will take over from Marx in the World Cup should the latter get injured.
And then there’s also the massive mental and physical challenge that lies in wait in New Zealand this weekend. The objectives of winning at all costs, testing combinations and building depth ahead of the Japan spectacle also seem to be things the SA director of rugby hasn’t quite found a formula for yet. It must be tough, no doubt, to experiment, build depth and get the results consistently in limited time. But at this point it’s not exactly clear what Erasmus’ main objective is.
It seems like the goal changes every week. For example, if building depth and testing combinations is crucial, why keep scrumhalf Faf de Klerk on for 80 minutes and not use Embrose Papier at all? He’s a youngster, he needs to rack up minutes, even if it’s here and there, if he’s to play a role at the World Cup.
And why experiment so heavily if the game is considered a must-win? Ultimately, Erasmus is going to have to figure out which objective is most important and stick to it. He’s going to have to prioritise. Because trying to tick all the boxes hasn’t really worked until now.