DURBAN - There was an interesting moment when Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus was quizzed about his goals heading towards the 2019 World Cup in his first press conference in Durban ahead of the Argentina clash on Saturday.
The coach spoke of balancing winning and growing the team, but then brought up his unprecedented six year contract that is intended to take him to the following World Cup, in France.
The coach handled the question well enough, and professed his love for the job as both head coach and director of rugby, but also gave insight into the kind of pressure that has come to bear on his shoulders.
South Africa’s rugby has been in a bit of a spiral since the days of Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee. It would be fair to say under the former little progress was made off the field, in terms of growing youngsters and transformation goals, and equally so, the on field play was quite stale.
For Coetzee, Meyer’s construction gave the incoming coach a very flimsy foundation to build upon, but in saying that, Coetzee did not do himself many favours in his time at the helm.
Now, Erasmus has come in and done so with a lot of fanfare and good feeling. He has made smart choices in selection during the June Tests, and made Siya Kolisi his captain, as well as won his first series.
However, the true test awaits as the Rugby Championship looms. It is clear that New Zealand will be a massive acid test for Erasmus’ rebuilding Boks, but one should not count out a reemerging Australia, nor a fired up Argentina side that has had a good run in Super Rugby as the Jaguares.
It also needs to be remembered that Coetzee had two purple patches in his tenure, both during the June series’ over the two years. He managed a tight win against a good Irish side first off, and then smashed the French the following year in a whitewash.
There was, like it is at the moment, a lot of optimism following the two June series’ for Coetzee, but poor results in the Rugby Championships, as well as surprising and frankly unwarranted losses in the November tours quickly soured the sentiment.
Erasmus needs to be wary of the challenge that awaits him in the next four or so months. The expectation on the highly regarded coach is extremely high, and the South African rugby fan is a fickle one. A few losses, or bad decisions, and suddenly Erasmus could become Public Enemy No 1.
What is even more difficult for Erasmus is he is balancing more than just winning. As head coach, and director of rugby, he has admitted there is no divorcing that role and thus winning for him is just as important as his other mandates, such as transformation, rebuilding the Bok brand, and strengthening rugby in the country in general.
Erasmus has said though, at the start of this campaign, with two games against Argentina, that it has the feel of a mini series and that he can do a bit of testing and tinkering to get things right for the rest of the competition, as well as in preparation for the World Cup.
The coach explained that, although Argentina can be viewed as the weaker of the four teams in the Championship, he is still greatly respects them, and that is part of the reason he wants to do some tinkering in the opening games.
“In our team selection for the two Argentina games we are going to try a few things, but it is not because we don’t respect them, it is actually because we respect them so much,” Erasmus explained. “So we know that if players can shine against the Pumas, then you can count on them for the World Cup.”