DURBAN - Rassie Erasmus has a reputation for being one of rugby’s great thinkers but after the Springboks’ mindless implosion in Brisbane, you wonder if the coach has out-thought himself.
What we saw, especially in the second half, was an unsettled team palpably at odds with itself and the uncertainty was reflected in the despairingly large number of cardinal errors. Individuals in a cocksure team do not make the lamentable mistakes that gift-wrapped Saturday’s Test to a Wallabies team that had the good grace to look bemused at the end of it.
This is a poor Australia team and it entered the Rugby Championship encounter demoralised after two humiliating defeats to the All Blacks, plus having had their fragile belief further dented by the last-minute withdrawal of their best backline player and best forward, Israel Folau and David Pocock respectively.
The Australians were there for the taking, and given the Boks’ forward supremacy in the first half, the points for the win should have been summarily bagged. But the Boks did not have the composure to put the Wallabies away and their profligate gifting of points and possession kept the home team in the game. Instead of beating the Wallabies by 20 points, the Boks meekly yielded a rare and gilt-edged opportunity to win in Australia.
What happened to the irresistible Bok performances of June that saw Eddie Jones’ England team impressively beaten in South Africa? Would matters have been different in Brisbane and two weeks previously in Mendoza had Erasmus kept together as far as possible the team that played so well against England in Johannesburg instead of constantly making changes, thus preventing the team from growing in stature, assurance and belief?
You have to feel for captain Siya Kolisi. It can’t be easy to lead a side that is persistently changing. We had one team for Erasmus’ first Test in charge (against Wales in Washington DC), another for the first two Tests against England, a changed line-up for the final Test against the Jones’ team, a different squad for the tow Tests against Argentina and, latterly, a re-jigged side to play the Wallabies. It follows that there will be changes again this Saturday’s showdown with the All Blacks.
Erasmus has unashamedly been playing chess since his first Test in June, with his strategy geared towards a checkmate against the world champions in Wellington. He aimed to have his ultimate match 23 fit, fresh and convinced they could topple the black juggernaut.
Let’s go back to Erasmus’ three-pronged mandate for coaching the Boks - establishing a winning culture, transformation and building depth towards the World Cup. Transformation was a non-negotiable and with the naming of his first Bok squad, Erasmus nailed it. But the coach has dug a hole in his bid to achieve his other two objectives. He has been trying to scratch his head while simultaneously rubbing his tummy. In attempting to be all things to all people he has ended up in a muddle.
With one eye on the World Cup, there has been experimentation and resting of players while simultaneously attempting to win, but on the eve of the big showdown with the All Blacks, it clearly isn’t working.
Perhaps the priority should have been solely on winning, and once attained, then tinker here and there. Two or three changes to a winning team are imperceptible, but half a dozen changes to an unsettled team can be catastrophic.
To illustrate this, on the same weekend it was revealing to compare how an All Black team showing six changes fared against Argentina compared to a Bok team showing as many changes for the Wallabies match.
It was perplexing to hear Erasmus say after the defeat in Argentina that “Brisbane is now win-at-all costs”. Shouldn’t that be the case in EVERY Test the Boks play? There has been so much losing in the Bok jersey in recent years that establishing a winning culture should have been paramount.
Sadly, most of the current Boks know that the losing habit is as difficult to kick as the winning one is to attain. You can have all the clever plotting in the world, but for Bok supporters rugby can be boiled down to one cliche: “Winning isn’t everything... It is the only thing.”