Side Entry: Erasmus has earned the right to experiment with Jones

Boks coach Rassie Erasmus. Picture: Gallo Images
Boks coach Rassie Erasmus. Picture: Gallo Images

Of the many pointless arguments South Africans have during World Cup discussions, one revolves around who was ultimately responsible for the Springbok class of 2007 winning the Webb Ellis Trophy – Jake White or Eddie Jones?

Just weeks before that World Cup, White roped in former Australia coach Jones to consult on a vague title – running lines in attack, if memory serves correctly – in a move that triggered all kinds of fear and loathing among his xenophobic countrymen.

The SA Rugby Union demanded that the Aussie not wear a supporting staff blazer and refused to pay for Jones’ involvement, which necessitated then sponsors Sasol to do so from a R4 million war chest White had asked for, while the rugby public was sceptical about a man who’d spent years helping the Wallabies outfox the Boks suddenly helping them.

But after the Boks won, Jones was the recipient of an inordinate amount of credit for the victory – the narrative going as far as suggesting that, had he not been there, Bill wouldn’t have come back to South Africa 12 years ago.

As promising as the potential debate is, the fact of the matter was that the often maligned White took the risk of recruiting an internationally renowned coach and, had he not had that chutzpah, he wouldn’t have been rewarded with a World Cup win.

Current Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’ enlisting of another Jones – Felix – with a consultancy title that needed a bit of explaining to be understood (at first, the Irishman was called a defensive consultant, then that was amended to analyst of the opposition’s defence) took one back to 2007.

While not exactly greeted with the outrage that met Eddie Jones’ appointment, there was still a whiff of the suspicion that accompanied the likes of John Mitchell throughout their work in South Africa, despite doing an excellent job of laying solid foundations at the Lions and the Blue Bulls.

Much was made of former Ireland international fullback Felix Jones’ position, the initial thinking being that coming in as a defensive consultant would be a duplication of Jacques Nienaber’s role in a team that already relies heavily on abrasive defence as its chief playmaker.

But Erasmus’ explanation that Jones’ actual job would be to analyse opposition defences for weaknesses the Boks can exploit was – to this career drop-kick writer, anyway – a convoluted way of saying he’d been appointed as an attack coach to replace fellow attack coach Swys de Bruin, who left the camp for personal reasons a fortnight ago.

With the Boks’ play-off matches likely to be Six Nations opponents (Ireland or Scotland, if Japan doesn’t cause an upset and advance into the quarterfinals, and England in the semis), Jones, who has worked under current Ireland coach Joe Schmidt before, will come in particularly handy.

What makes Jones particularly useful is the information from Ireland that he was disappointed to miss out on full-time employment with the Irish team, meaning that he’s got a bit of an axe to grind with his former employers (we like to think the Boks will win Pool B, but there is every likelihood they might lose their blockbuster campaign opener against the All Blacks).

Also, with Erasmus liking a smaller coaching staff than most coaches, having a new voice in the camp should invigorate the players and keep them on their toes, what with the new ideas Jones will be imparting to the team.

World Cups may be won on what the Boks already possess – a big, aggressive pack, abrasive defence and a good kicking fly half – but their current evolution could still use fresh attacking ideas after they were blunted by England and Wales last year, and by the All Blacks in this year’s Rugby Championship.

Long story short, not knowing exactly who Felix Jones is doesn’t mean he may not be a gift horse. Besides, Erasmus’ track record of experimenting in the Springbok fold should mean this is one worth taking.


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