Press briefings are mostly dull affairs. Modern elite athletes – even hulking, cauliflower-eared rugby forwards – have undergone so much media training that they’re as adept at answering probing questions from journalists as they are at raking out opposition flankers from the wrong side of the ruck.
On Tuesday afternoon at the five-star Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, London, the most interesting takeaway came not from what was said but rather when it was said. Duane Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx, full of banter and smiles, arrived almost an hour late for their scheduled tête-à-tête with the press.
Notwithstanding that the narrow streets of west London could barely fit the Bok front row if they stood shoulder to shoulder, there was the considerable traffic en route to the press conference. But that was not the sole contributing factor to the tardiness of the two heavyweights. Rather, they were delayed by their extra scrum work at training earlier that day.
Like anyone with half a mind for rugby, and he has much more than that, Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus will know that his forwards hold the key to victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday. Rain is expected at kickoff and the camp won’t need reminding of the 10-25 loss against their opponents at a wet Newlands in Cape Town earlier this year.
“The weather played a big part,” said Vermeulen in response to what was the difference between that match, where South Africa conceded four penalties from the scrum, and the previous two in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, which both ended in home wins in dry conditions. “Those are the types of conditions England are used to playing in. We will have to adapt.”
Battle of the big boys
Playing in green and gold for the first time since that defeat in Cape Town, having missed the Rugby Championship, Vermeulen stressed the importance of matching Eddie Jones’ big boys, and identified the breakdown and set-piece play as two vital fronts in what is sure to be a war of attrition.
The Springboks are formidable in this department and will provide the English with a much sterner test than they did at home. Marx, the best all-round hooker on the planet according to England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward, was out injured then. He offers an extra set of hands when the ball goes to ground. Eben Etzebeth, who was also absent for the Tests against England in June, provides stability in the line-out and added grunt in the close channels.
Add to the mix the strength of Steven Kitshoff, the dynamism of Pieter-Steph du Toit and the work rate of skipper Siya Kolisi, and Erasmus can sleep easy knowing he has a selection of forwards capable of matching any in the world.
But the coach’s concerns will most likely lie in the rearguard. Faf de Klerk, an Erasmus favourite who has started as scrum half in all of the Boks’ nine previous tests, is unavailable for the end-of-year tour, having sacrificed it for the Rugby Championship.
Ivan van Zyl, with three Test caps, will start at No. 9 on Saturday. He along with the other scrum halves – Embrose Papier of the Blue Bulls and Louis Shredder, who recently captained the Sharks to Currie Cup glory – have just eight Bok Test caps between them, and a meagre 122 playing minutes at that.
This lack of depth in such a crucial position is worrying for the Springboks with less than a year to go before the World Cup in Japan, particularly in a shirt once worn by legends Joost van Der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez.
“There’ll be no extra pressure on us to give him [van Zyl] extra protection,” Marx said, squashing the idea that his forward pack now have added responsibilities with a rookie No. 9 behind them. “All our players are here because they deserve to be. We’ll give him the best possible ball as we normally would, but there is no added stress.”
Erasmus also played down the dearth of battle-hardened Springbok scrum halves this week, saying that his side was merely going through a natural cycle. What the coach did not touch on was his own myopia, which contributed to his predicament. He can dress it how he likes, but the inexperience found in the crucial scrum half position is partly his own fault.
When De Klerk proved incapable of switching from his usually energetic gameplay to a more conservative approach against England (Cape Town) and Australia (Brisbane), the Boks suffered and were unable to exert control on proceedings. Box kicking has never been one of De Klerk’s strengths and the sight of long, flat balls landing safely in the arms of opposition fullbacks must have been an infuriating sight for the forwards, who had worked so tirelessly to secure possession.
This is by no means a dig at De Klerk. He is unquestionably South Africa’s best scrum half. Instead, this points to a failure in game management from Erasmus, who could have turned to Papier, a more than reliable orchestrator in tight games. But Papier remained rooted to the bench throughout, watching each turnover with each kick.
With Vermeulen emphasising the importance of a good exit strategy against England, those same errors in judgement cannot be repeated in what is a very winnable game against an opponent short on confidence and plagued by injuries.
Erasmus must now play the cards he has been dealt. Some of them include aces such as the nominee for Breakthrough Player of the Year, Aphiwe Dyantyi, on the wing and a resurgent Handrè Pollard at fly half.
Two more aces in the form of Marx and Vermeulen can be found in Erasmus’ pack. Both exuded the quiet confidence that no doubt runs through the side, emphasising the progress made in just five months. Much will depend on whether or not that same confidence has filtered down to Van Zyl on to the biggest stage of his career.