He has also accepted that he is unlikely to ever have his first choice matchday-23 available at any given time. That’s the nature of rugby today, where injuries hit regularly and unexpectedly.
And so it is for this reason he has said he will try things in the Test matches that remain before the World Cup, why he will gamble every now and again on players, test them, and mix and match styles of rugby: he needs to know what will work for the Springboks in the long term and what players will be good enough to play, and win, at any given time, against any opposition.
Depth in his squad, Erasmus said this week ahead of his third Test in charge of the Boks, was not his major concern, even though he has had to prepare a Test team in recent weeks missing several key, first choice players.
Here one thinks of Lizo Gqoboka, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Warren Whiteley, and overseas men Frans Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis, who he was very keen to work with this June.
He was also unable to pick promising youngsters like Marco van Staden and Roelof Smit, probably the two best openside fetchers in the country, and powerhouse stopper Cyle Brink, who were all in the selection mix this month until injury ruled them out of the England series.
The reality is all these men could, potentially, be sidelined next year when the World Cup comes around so Erasmus knows the importance of building experience now: “We don’t want 14 or 15 guys going to the World Cup who we can trust ... we want a full squad of 32 who we can trust,” he said about growing his pool of players.
Where previously Erasmus might have been concerned about depth in certain positions, like scrumhalf, he is now more worried about ensuring the likes of Ivan van Zyl, Cameron Wright and Embrose Papier - the three back-up men at this stage for first choice Faf de Klerk – are Test primed come September 2019. “There are so many guys who are out because of injury, which has opened the door for others to get a chance, and that is a real positive.”
“These guys here now have a chance to stick their hands up, to grab their chance. Now add the injured group to this group and then you’ve got a squad that has depth, which is not even the issue. More concerning to me is the need to get guys capped, to build experience. And then after that, we can start working on continuity. The talent is there, but we need to build our experience.”
At the start of the June Tests 16 men in his squad of 41 (minus Steyn and Du Plessis) hadn’t played Test rugby, while a good few others hadn’t played 10 Tests. “Now they can all say they have tasted Test rugby, experienced the media, singing the anthem ... all those things. We’ll continue to try new things and give players opportunities; it’s the only way we can to go to the World Cup with an experienced squad.
“I’ve been involved with previous coaches, Heyneke (Meyer), Peter (de Villiers) and Allister (Coetzee) and they all complained they didn’t have enough time with the team ... well, it’s true.
“Of course you do your best to try and bridge the gap, by hosting (alignment) camps and sharing information with the players and those things all help, but when you get into Test week, it becomes tough. You’re dealing with players coming in from their different franchises, overseas guys coming in late ... and to quickly get them to come together on the same page is tough.”
Erasmus may be one of the brighter rugby minds in the game and be highly respected, but there is always something new to learn and take away from a Test match. Asked what he had discovered anew after just two Tests in charge – a loss in Washington and a come-from-behind win in Joburg – he said, “Character wins you Test matches. It’s something that can’t be coached. You can have as many team talks as you want, your plans can be in place and your tactics can be well understood, but those things don’t win you Test matches, character does.
“It’s the individuals who have to make the right decisions on the field, the big calls. If you’ve got that in a team then you’ve also got hope.”
It’s been an up-and-down start to the season, but Erasmus knew it was going to be. Still, he’s passionate about his job and the team and made it clear he’s in for the long haul.@jacq_west
Independent on Saturday