We should have known better. There have been superior Super Rugby campaigns for local teams, but it’s difficult to remember when last we saw such buds of exciting new talent.
The tournament routinely bruises the SA rugby ego, but talent will out and we must celebrate the flourishing of new flair, despite everything.
Coach Rassie Erasmus now has the happy problem of deciding who to leave out, although this must be balanced with the virtue of experience. Lukhanyo Am may be the coming man at centre, but perhaps Frans Steyn’s battle scars must count for more. And so it goes.
Erasmus is also faced with the unusual challenge of preparing for a lark against Wales in the US, followed by a hard three-match series at home against England.
Travel-weary legs from a long trip to the US won’t help, so essentially two squads will be required. The one for the US can’t be slap-dash material either. Wales are tough buggers and it would be a disaster for Erasmus to start off with a loss.
It would be far better to mix and match, perhaps using European stars like Willie le Roux, Faf de Klerk and Steyn, who are in closer proximity to the East coast. The move would also reveal their readiness for a crack against England who, despite recent tribulations, are ranked third in the world.
Already the planets are aligning for Erasmus. He’s won several concessions, not least of which is being allowed to select whom he likes, and he has established a vibrant working relationship with the Super Rugby teams.
This is important. He will need the coaches’ support when he’s struggling, as he will.
It was a smart move co-opting Swys de Bruin, the Lions coach, for the England series. De Bruin is shrewd and his inclusion signals an alignment with his heads-up philosophy. This is exciting and underscores Erasmus’ open-minded approach.
But none of this will matter a jot, and nor should it, if Erasmus stuffs up transformation.
He’s already indicated that it’s a major key performance indicator on his job card. If his numbers don’t measure up, a key chunk of his role would have been a failure.
For almost 25 years, we’ve mucked about with transformation.
Erasmus now has the unique possibility of getting it right, unlike every one of his predecessors. Rather than talk a good game, he can deliver one by selecting a squad whose richness is reflected in its hue.
In seasons past it was difficult to choose black players beyond the wings and perhaps scrumhalf, chiefly because they were denied opportunities at Super Rugby level, but they are everywhere now.
Lizo Gqoboka, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Warrick Gelant, Am, Hajivah Dayimani, Madosh Tambwe, Damian Willemse, Sbu Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi and Ox Nche have been among SA’s best.
Throw players like Elton Jantjies and Siya Kolisi, a contender for the captaincy, into the mix and the transformation of SA rugby is tangible rather than an uncomfortable buzzword.
Erasmus must go high rather than low in his selections.
His coaching forebears were all cowed by the prospect of defeat, but that shouldn’t enter Erasmus’ rationale. None of these players are quota selections, all having rumbled with the best of New Zealand and Australia.
A player like Mapimpi would give England fits. Give someone like Gqoboka a couple of hours with Beast Mtawarira showing him the dark arts, and he’ll have smoke coming out of his nostrils for England.
Willemse might not have the haarde baard of a Jantjies or Handré Pollard, but just imagine what havoc he could wreak with a 15-minute cameo late in a match against England.
Erasmus must be brave. He must show it can be done – without the politicians’ sabre-rattling. The gifted former player from Despatch whose cavalier style helped power the Boks must rattle the cages that need to be rattled.
He stands on the cusp of history, as the man who finally cracks the code.
Will his nerve hold?