DURBAN – Some years ago, when Harry Viljoen was the coach of a very ordinary Springbok team, none other than Sean Fitzpatrick proffered advice for the Boks through the medium of a Sunday newspaper.
It was after a sound thrashing of the Boks by the All Blacks (admittedly there have been more than few), and the former player that Bok supporters most loved to hate was cheekily asked what the Boks could do to turn around their fortunes, which had diminishing steadily under Viljoen.
The latter had the right idea in attempting to introduce a more enterprising style of play, but his players did not have the required skills.
Instead of laughing off the question with a “no comment”, Fitzpatrick sportingly said something along these lines: “Go back to doing what you do best you guys are still physically the toughest team in world rugby but you have to evolve, too.
“Don’t ignore your strengths, but at the same time don’t get left behind.”
Some 15 years later, that is pretty much what Rassie Erasmus says he intends doing. It sounds like it is going to be something old, something new and something borrowed for the 2018 Boks, but let’s hope the focus shifts to the new sooner rather than later.
At a press conference on Monday, Erasmus said he wanted to blend physical confrontation and dazzling attack into a winning brand.
In these times where virtually every country is trying to copy the All Blacks - Wales, Ireland, Argentina and Scotland, to name a few - it is refreshing that Erasmus is taking a pragmatic approach to how the Boks should play by recognising what he has to work with.
Sharks coach Robert du Preez has been another to state that South African teams should not simply copy the All Blacks, but craft a uniquely South African way of playing that embraces elements of the New Zealanders’ attacking play, and also includes physical domination in the set pieces and breakdowns, and uncompromising defence.
The territory game will also be a strong component of the initial way the Boks will play, and the aim is for the scales to tip away from kicking to using the ball, and playing what is in front of the players.
We know this because the coach has said that he believes in a cautious approach until a winning culture is established, and morale and confidence are high. With a foundation in place, Erasmus will expand the team’s horizons.
This early prudence in approach was also suggested in a comment made by the coach regarding the “pleasing” attacking approach adopted by all of the SA franchises.
“It’s just unfortunate that while we’ve been doing that attacking, we’ve also leaked a lot of tries.
“That’s where I need to find the right balance,” he said.
This is also where world-renowned defence coach Jacques Nienaber comes in.
He and Erasmus have been mates since their army days, and the friendship most recently took them to a successful stint at Munster.
This year Nienaber has been working thoroughly with the leading players in the country, meticulously building a profile of each player. He has said that he has analysed virtually every tackle made by the top players, and the defensive pattern he adopts will be tailored according to the general defensive strengths of the Bok squad.
So far, in everything that Erasmus has done and said as Bok coach, there has been balance and a measured approach, be it in the 43-man squad he has picked or in his comments on the probable Bok game plan.
So far so good, but with Fitzy’s words ringing in our ears, let’s hope an emphasis on “evolving” is at the forefront of the way the Boks play.