Time for Boks to settle

Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has spoken about another four or five changes to his side for Saturday’s return Rugby Championship clash with Argentina in Mendoza but expect that to be the last of the chopping and changing for the time being. 

Erasmus wasn’t as effusive as some previous Bok coaches might have been about his team’s feat of scoring six tries and grabbing a bonus point in the opening match of the competition in Durban, according to the supersport.com website.

He was happy with the 25 to 30 minutes after halftime that ensured that a 10-14 halftime deficit became a 34-21 victory, but otherwise he felt the performance at Johnson Kings Park was disappointing. 

“We had (overseas) players who were just coming off a pre-season, we had other players that had just been reintroduced to the team and I hadn’t coached before now (Malcolm Marx and Warren Whiteley) and we had other players making their comeback from a long lay-off so I expected us to struggle a bit,” admitted Erasmus afterwards. 

“But maybe I didn’t expect the extent that we struggled. We got dragged into the Pumas taking the tempo down. When we fixed that in the second half we were better. But there were problems, such as some dysfunction in the lineouts. 

“Pieter-Steph du Toit hasn’t played for a while, Malcolm did not play for us for quite a while. Lots of guys have not played for us for a while. There were aspects (in the selection) that suggested we might not gel straight away, and that is what happened.” 

Massive changes have been made over the two test matches the Boks have played since they secured the series win over England in June.

The third match of that series was a dead rubber and thus an ideal chance to experiment with the creation of depth ahead of next year’s World Cup in mind, while the home match against Argentina is probably the best time to experiment in the Rugby Championship. 

But the next phase, which features the trip to Argentina followed closely by the two match tour to Australia, is not time to experiment, plus Erasmus seems well aware of the need for his team to start getting some continuity so that it can gel before the all-important first clash with New Zealand of his tenure in Wellington next month. 

“There is some gelling that needs to be done in this team,” he agreed. “The enthusiasm and the way the team has grown is more positive than the mistakes that have been made. But we know that we face a different challenge in Argentina next week. They will be fuming at this defeat. We know we are going there without the luxury of being able to experiment (with our selections).” 

Indeed, and it is time for the Boks to settle, which has a much better chance of happening if there is continuity in selection and the combinations have time to find each other. If you go through the various combinations that have represented the Boks this season, continuity has been glaringly absent. 

Of course, Erasmus has been brave with his selections, and he was brave again this past weekend with the changes he made in the second half, and relatively early in the piece too. He should be lauded for that, and it is easy to see how his selection policy can create the squad of 36 players of international class that he feels is needed for next year’s World Cup.

But there are also other ways to build that depth, such as introducing the fringe players and giving them a chance to play around a settled core, and that element needs to be introduced for the rest of the Championship, which is critical to how the early part of the Erasmus tenure will be viewed.

There is no disputing that the Boks have improved immeasurably in the time that the new coach has been in charge. Even given the selection changes they look more organised, better coached and as a consequence of that more composed, even though in key areas they have lacked experience. 

However if you consider that it is against the two top southern hemisphere teams that the Boks are usually judged, then you could argue that the judgement hasn’t really started yet. That judgement starts now, with the first big away trip (the Washington excursion to play Wales was just an exhibition game) and in particular what follows - the matches in Brisbane and Wellington.

A good return will also be expected from the Boks in the final leg of the Championship when they host the Aussies and Kiwis, and regardless of what happened in June, or what happens on the end of year tour to France and the UK in November, the next month and a half will be the defining period of Erasmus’ first year.

The changes made this weekend will feature an element of horses for courses selection and Erasmus settling on his best team so that the side can gel and sharpen for the bigger tests that are looming. 

Five tests into his tenure, Erasmus should be pleased with the depth he has at forward. He should be more concerned about what he has at the back, even though all six tries against the Pumas were scored by the backs. 

Eben Etzebeth may have been rusty but he made a strong return to rugby and it resulted in Erasmus playing him for most of the game, Du Toit grew in stature the longer the game lasted alongside him, and it was the relentless carrying of the Bok pack that ground the plucky Pumas into the Kings Park turf. 

However, while Faf de Klerk is by some distance the best scrumhalf and produced some dazzling touches that created tries and should ensure that this game was remembered as a good one for him, he also showed a tendency to fall back on his old habit of being too individualistic. 

Perhaps that had an impact on Handre Pollard. As Erasmus said afterwards, the flyhalf did not enjoy a good day at the office. He was referring to the missed goal-kicks that held the Boks back from really putting the Argentinians away much earlier. But Pollard didn’t enjoy a great all-round game either, and should have ended the match feeling he could do a lot better. 

The halves are likely to remain a problem area for Erasmus going forward, particularly given the lack of depth in the respective positions, and let’s not forget that he plans to release De Klerk, along with the two other English based players Willie le Roux and Francois Louw, when the home leg of the Championship comes around at the end of next month. 

Talking of Le Roux, it is noticeable that it is when the fullback pops into first receiver that the backs look a proper attacking force, and the experience and value added by Le Roux was the reason that Erasmus brought Damian Willemse on as a flyhalf rather than in the last line of defence. 

It was easy to feel sorry for Willemse when the first questions he received afterwards were about the intercept try that he gave away not long after coming onto the field. That can happen to anyone. But Willemse showed the same great maturity in answering the questions that he has in adapting to the pressures of first class rugby in the less than two years since he left school. 

It will be interesting going forward to see whether Erasmus might at some point try what he intended in the Bloemfontein test against England but never got a chance to - in other words, give Le Roux a chance to play pivot. 

Now that Willemse has been given a chance to get a cap under his belt it will also be interesting to see if Erasmus reverts to Elton Jantjies’ experience as Pollard’s back-up in the more pressured atmosphere anticipated in Mendoza. Jantjies was on Sunday retained in the trimmed down squad of 28 that left Durban for Argentina early on Monday morning.

Bok tour squad: Willie le Roux, Damian Willemse, Makazole Mapimpi, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Lionel Mapoe, Lukhanyo Am, Andre Esterhuizen, Elton Jantjies, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier, Warren Whiteley, Siya Kolisi (captain), Francois Louw, Marco van Staden, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, RG Snyman, Thomas du Toit, Frans Malherbe, Wilco Louw, Akker van der Merwe, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Beast Mtawarira, Steven Kitshoff

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