The enduring miracle of South African rugby is how it keeps reinventing and re-shaping itself.It might have taken ridiculously long to embrace transformation in the upper reaches, but when it finally happened it was practically seamless.
Rassie Erasmus came in, installed Siya Kolisi as captain and selected a raft of black players. The sun came up the next day, a series win against England was claimed and we could instead worry about our tackling.
These are important gains because they help insulate Erasmus against the sort of criticism Springbok coaches have long laboured under.
For instance, when he came in, it was with the express understanding that he could select overseas-based players. Without them, the Boks would be under-powered middle-of-the-roaders.
He was shrewd with whom he drew closer. The triumvirate of Duane Vermeulen, Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk, none of whose form was guaranteed, were magnificent. It was a calculated gamble, but Erasmus has sharp instincts and knows which buttons to push. It’s an important quality.
He’s been bold with his selections and encouraged a pragmatic, exciting style. Their tactical kicking game is also a world away from the mess of the preceding two years.
The Boks might still be wobbly in parts, but they’re fired up with ambition and try things. They’ll get better.
Erasmus has also given his players their freedom, chiefly De Klerk who was told to roam and create as much havoc as he liked. He’s a whippersnapper at the best of times, but the way he got up England’s noses in Joburg especially reflected exactly what Erasmus sought.
Vermeulen was key in rallying the players after they fell behind 24-3 in the first Test. When the big No 8 barks at you to up your game, as he did together with Kolisi, you do so.
The adventure is back in the Bok game, as was evident with the cavalier Le Roux combining so breathtakingly with Aphiwe Dyantyi and Sbu Nkosi on attack. When those three swept up the field, it was a sight to behold: scorching pace everywhere, options galore.
Defence remains a work in progress, but it’s significant that after the shambolic Bok start last weekend, which yielded two fast England tries, the visitors never scored a point from the 13th minute onwards. The Boks are learning, quickly.
Suddenly, the Bok scrum is a weapon again too. You need the tight five to operate in concert and the way they performed against England, never a bad set-piece side, confirmed the spirit within.
Erasmus’ use of the bench has also been faultless. The term “impact player” wasn’t always rooted in reality, but every player he has brought on has made a vital difference.
Even when he pulled Kolisi off, it was because Erasmus correctly sensed the player was gassed. Fresh blood worked a treat, most memorably with Steven Kitshoff, who will inherit Beast Mtawarira’s mantle.
There have been smaller, but no less important, moves. Drawing Schalk Brits nearer was smart. The Saracens man is a font of knowledge and radiates good energy. All he’s done is share his knowledge.
So too Swys de Bruin, one of the quiet achievers of SA rugby. He’s been at the heart of their great shift, something Erasmus not only recognised, but sought to activate with the Boks by bringing the Lions coach on board.
These might be happy days rich with promise, but Erasmus himself has tried to dampen the bullishness. “We must be brave; there will be losses on the road to the World Cup,” he cautioned.
It’s true, because the less discerning among us will think the old problems and bad habits have gone away. Erasmus himself says the All Blacks are the standard bearers and we’re still some way off.
The point is that he’s sifting through players, working out who has the right stuff and who hasn’t. After this rugged series, we all have a better idea.
Erasmus couldn’t be more right about the Boks’ standing, but to think of where they were last year, on the streets of Nowhereville, the turnaround in both form and attitude is remarkable. The Boks are still in the foothills of Everest, but the march upwards has begun.@ClintonV