In an ideal world, Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’ main concern would be thinking about ways to topple the mighty All Blacks. But the Boks of today don’t live in an ideal world.
The challenges that confront South Africa as the team strives to live up to its full potential and thrive at the top of world rugby were exposed once more in Durban last Saturday.
The Boks’ first-half performance against Argentina in their opening match of this year’s Rugby Championship was nothing if not inept.
Even though his charges ended up with a 34-21 victory, Erasmus made no secret of his low expectations of his team in the first half, as it had been almost two months since they last played together.
The Bok coach fielded an almost completely different side to the one that played in the third and final Test of the series against England in Cape Town in June.
As if a mirroring the manner in which the Boks sunk in the two years preceding Erasmus’ reign, the side produced a dire 40 minutes of rugby before turning on the charm in the second half to blow the South Americans away through some dominant play by the forwards.
As porous as the Springboks were under Allister Coetzee, when they sunk to lows not seen before in their history, under Erasmus the dignity of one of the proudest rugby nations has been somewhat restored.
There is hope that they can return to the top if some of their play during the second half in Durban on Saturday is anything to go by.
“Overall, it was a dominant performance but I wouldn’t say it was a crisp performance.”
“The first 25 or 30 minutes in the second half was probably the only decent rugby we played. We always knew [that’s what we will get] with Francois Louw and Faf de Klerk only having a pre-season and Eben [Etzebeth] coming back. I was not expecting a fluent display but it was worse than I thought it would be in the first half,” said Erasmus.
“We knew that Eben was fit, but I don’t think anyone expected a performance like that. I think we were dragged into a slow pace between set plays and we struggled to switch it on again when the ball was actually in play. Luckily Siya [Kolisi] and the boys fixed it and we were much better after half-time.
There were a few crucial line-outs that we lost. There were some technical errors but Eben, Pieter-Steph [du Toit], Flo [Louw] and Siya were really good. With a new loose trio combination it is always tough to just click. Overall, it was a dominant performance but I wouldn’t say it was a crisp performance.”
A dysfunctional first half
But for the Bok coach, it was that dysfunctional first half, littered with handling errors and an inability to convert the possession and territorial dominance into something tangible on the scoreboard, that will force Erasmus, himself a former Springbok flanker, to focus his immediate thoughts on what lies ahead in Mendoza this coming Saturday, and not the All Blacks.
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi echoed the sentiments of his coach, lamenting his team’s inability to deliver the goods when it mattered. But in the same breath, he complimented the side for the effort and willingness to fight for the win.
Kolisi said: “We spoke during the week about starting well and then we didn’t deliver. The intensity was a real positive, but I felt that our execution and discipline let us down in the initial stages.”
Even though Los Pumas looked a shade of themselves, especially under the mentorship of new coach Mario Ledesma, they will certainly be a different outfit playing at home, where they have proven to be a handful for the Boks in the past.
Erasmus is no fool and might have foreseen what could go down in Argentina, not only guided by history but by how dangerous the South Americans can be when they put their minds to it.
“I know the Pumas are fuming and they’ll want to get us back when we go there,” the coach said looking ahead of their trip to Argentina.
Erasmus will be at pains to plug the glaring shortcomings of his team, including the sub-standard performances of fly half Handre Pollard, who missed five kicks at goal; the misguided throwing by hooker Malcolm Marx in the line-outs; while Frans Malherbe, Louw and scrum half Faf de Klerk looked a yard or two off the pace.
To add to the firepower epitomised by Etzebeth’s barnstorming performance from a man who has been injured and on the sidelines for eight months, the Springboks will be heartened as well by the meteoric growth that wing Aphiwe Dyantyi has made in the Test arena.
Dyantyi was duly awarded man of the match for his standout and tireless contribution, which included two tries and an act of selflessness when he passed the ball to winger Makazole Mapimpi to score his brace, when he himself could have easily scored a hat-trick.
There was another improved and growing performance from centre Lukhanyo Am, whose timely intervention in defence stopped Argentina dead in their tracks.
It is highly unlikely that Erasmus will make too many changes in his starting line-up but there will certainly be a bigger role to play for the likes of Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse, Embrose Papier, Marco van Staden, and props Steven Kitshoff and Thomas du Toit.
Jean-Luc du Preez, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Marvin Orie, Ross Cronje, Jesse Kriel and Lwazi Mvovo, even though not involved in Saturday’s Test, were the casualties who were left out of the squad travelling to Argentina.
For now, Erasmus must have set his sights on Argentina and ensure that his side puts them to the sword while showing progress in the way they play.
It will be ideal for the Springboks to return from South America with a full bag of points before they occupy themselves with the elephant in the room … how to beat the All Blacks.
Springbok team to face Argentina
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Makazole Mapimpi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Siya Kolisi (captain), 6 Francois Louw, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx and 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Lionel Mapoe and 23 Damian Willemse