DURBAN - Rassie Erasmus’ thinking cap would have been laying heavy on his troubled head on the flight back from Buenos Aires on Monday... You can forgive him for canning the customary arrivals press conference at OR Tambo International Airport.
As Scottish poet Robert Burns so cannily put it, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Or as Erasmus himself said last Saturday night, “the plans for Australia are out the window.” The coach has less than a week to do an ambulance job on his team ahead of departure for Brisbane this Saturday where the brooding Wallabies beckon, so what can he immediately do with what he has at his disposal?
Some areas are easier to fix than others such as swapping Wilco Louw for Frans Malerbe at tighthead, with the former only having been a stopgap to allow South Africa’s best tighthead to have a breather after his marathon season. And Thomas du Toit must return as cover for Louw. The flyhalf poser of whether to go for broke with the raw Damian Willemse replacing off-colour Handre Pollard ties in with the misfiring midfield, but more of this later.
The big one for Erasmus is rectifying the patent imbalance in the loose trio, which got by when part of a pack that breathed fire in Durban. But those flames were doused in Mendoza when complacency dragged down the collective forward effort, exposing the inefficiency in the back-row combination. In essence, the trio as it stand is, well, too loose. There is too much dash and flash and not enough bruising industry at the breakdowns and in the tight loose.
In this loose trio, the rangy mobility of Warren Whiteley is a luxury... not with Siya Kolisi at blindside flank focusing more on a ball-carrying role than burying himself in the engine room. There would be a better balance if Duane Vermeulen was available for Brisbane but he joins the team a week later in Wellington, which does not help Erasmus in the here and now. And outclassed as the Australians cruelly were in the Bledisloe Cup routs, their two best players were loose forwards David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
Pocock, with bulging biceps that would make Popeye blush, is colossal over the ball and if it wasn’t for his incredible performances in winning or slowing down ball, the score lines would have been more embarrassing than they were. Captain Hooper was also a menace, his bloody bandages testimony to his heroic efforts at the breakdown. How is Erasmus going to deal with that lot?
Well perhaps he should replicate what Allister Coetzee did against the All Blacks at Newlands last year. For that classic encounter, Coetzee imaginatively moved Francois Louw to No 8, picked Kolisi at openside and promoted Pieter-Steph du Toit to blindside flank. The loose trio clicked that day. Each component had a huge game, and each is again available to Erasmus. He does not have Vermeulen, Jean-Luc du Preez or Cyle Brink, but he does have Louw, Kolisi and Du Toit. It would make sense to give that proven combination a second airing.
To digress slightly, Erasmus will have noted with interest that Marcell Coetzee is at last over a terrible knee injury and has made his comeback for Ulster. Coetzee, who can play No 6, 7 or 8 with equal proficiency is one of the best loose forwards South Africa has produced in the modern era, and the horrendous decision of Heyneke Meyer to drop him from the 2015 World Cup squad lives on in infamy.
Moving on to the show ponies at the back... it might be a coincidence but the more Erasmus has spoken about the ability of Damian Willemse, the poorer Pollard has played. Could it be that Pollard doesn’t like to look over his shoulder? Again, it might be a quirk of fate, but when he has had no competition during his career he has shone. Whatever the reason, Pollard is not at his best, and you would expect him to be after a very good an injury-free Super Rugby campaign for the Bulls.
Willemse also had a strong Super Rugby season, shining in a struggling Stormers side. What stands out about the 20-year-old is his bravery. He gets stuck in. Hence Erasmus’ remark that he is of the ilk of Francois Steyn, who became a fixture in the Boks at the age of 19. What to do? Pollard is an exceptional distributor and kicker of the ball out of hand. We do not have a player who can do that at No 12. Andre Esterhuizen and Damian de Allende are cut from the same one-dimensional cloth.
It is easy for us armchair selectors to be daring and suggest Willemse starts against the Wallabies and Pollard plays inside centre, but right now Erasmus should remember that fortune favours the brave.