JOHANNESBURG – Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has some tough decisions to make: Does he go all-out to bag five points against Argentina in Buenos Aires and win the Rugby Championship, or does he keep the bigger picture of the World Cup in mind and experiment with combinations and players in that final game of this year’s shortened competition?
At least Erasmus has this little dilemma to worry about and not something far more concerning, like trying to figure out how to restore Bok pride and get the team on the winning path - something that was all too familiar not too long ago.
Remember the dark days of 2016 and 2017 when the Boks suffered defeats of 57-15, 41-13 and 57-0 to the All Blacks? Springbok rugby was pretty much down in the dumps, but how quickly things have changed, and thankfully so.
Saturday’s 16-all draw against the New Zealanders in Wellington follows last year’s 30-32 loss in Pretoria and 36-34 win, also in Wellington. Add in the 24-25 defeat in Cape Town in the latter stages of 2017, in one of former coach Allister Coetzee’s last games in charge, and there has been precious little to choose between the Boks and All Blacks in recent times.
The big positive of course is that it appears the players don’t fear taking on the New Zealanders anymore; in fact, it looks like they, and the coaching team, relish the challenge. It’s something that excites them and brings the best out of them.
Hopefully the Boks can now continue to lift themselves no matter the opposition, and that includes Argentina, who they play in just over 10 days’ time in Buenos Aires.
Let’s make no mistake; it could be the Boks’ toughest match of the competition, which means the danger signals should be on high in the Bok camp. The thing is, very few South African Super Rugby franchises have gone to Argentina in recent times and won. Even the Boks’ record there isn’t great: In 2016 Argentina won 26-24 against the Boks, in 2017 the Boks won 41-23, and last year the home team got up 32-19.
But after a win and a draw, against Australia and New Zealand and the title on the line, the Boks will be just slight favourites next weekend. But the big question is: Does Erasmus go all out for the win by playing his best team? After two big games, it’s so far so good on the injury front, which is surprising, but for how long will the Boks be so lucky?
Pieter-Steph du Toit, for one, has played two full games back-to-back and is crucial to the Bok cause later this year in Japan. He is not a player worth risking in a third straight game when there are other loose-forwards who Erasmus can call on.
Of course, the other big talking point now is who are the first choice players? But what a nice problem for Erasmus to have. Against Australia the likes of Trevor Nyakane, Herschel Jantjies and Jesse Kriel starred in the starting team, but against New Zealand they came off the bench to make a big impact and help get the Boks across the line.
With the match against Argentina only happening next weekend, on August 10, the Bok boss at least has a few days to figure out what he plans to do for that title-deciding outing, during a training camp being held in Auckland this week - another smart decision by Erasmus.
If winning (or not losing) becomes a habit, the Boks must go all-out to collect all five points on offer next week and keep building the momentum, confidence, belief and depth ahead of the more important dates later this year.
Sure, there have been mistakes by Erasmus’ men this year, they’ve been far from perfect, and they may have got a tad lucky at times, but they’re playing some good rugby too, and that’s a damn side better than performing poorly and losing.
Onto the next one then, and another opportunity to, hopefully, put a tick behind the result.@jacq_west