Springboks are not yet out of the woods

Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Cape Town - This time last year, the Springboks had just concluded a 3-0 whitewash of France in what many read as the real new dawn of Allister Coetzee's ultimately short-lived tenure.

The talk at the time was after a 2016 in which the Boks lost an unprecedented eight of their 12 Test matches. A series of coaching indabas and a refined team culture would hopefully finally turn the ailing brand's results around.

But then they lost their then new captain Warren Whiteley to injury and the wheels came off - think record defeats to New Zealand and Ireland - in a season that ended in Coetzee's necessary departure.

At the time of writing, Rassie Erasmus' Boks were well on their way to matching Coetzee's charges' performances against France, having won the three-Test series against England by winning the first two games before Saturday evening's dead rubber at Newlands.

READ: Boks fall flat at miserable Newlands

The result has been accompanied by even more excitement than was the case against the French last year. But the similarities in the two series are uncanny. The French, who played the first Test with their second stringers because a lot of their first XV were detained by a Top 14 final - turned out to be pretty weak opposition.

And given a combination of fatigue, injuries, inexperience and daft calls like preparing for Test matches played at altitude at sea level, England are in the same boat and simply not the same team that won 18 on the trot not too long ago.

Add to this the fact that Duane Vermeulen, who has been head and shoulders the Boks' key player in the series against England, will do a Whiteley and not be available for the early part of the Rugby Championship due to club commitments in Japan, and the parallels are even more pronounced.

Simply put, Erasmus' Boks are not out of the woods as they also have more than enough time to go off the rails over the Rugby Championship obstacles marked by dominant All Blacks, crafty Wallabies and improved Pumas.

That said, even a feeble-minded columnist like this one recognises that Erasmus has laid the kind of foundation that makes this a better Springbok team than Coetzee's, which may well be their saving grace when the business end of their rugby season comes along.

Forget the feel-good factor the Boks seem to be awash with at the moment, thanks to Erasmus' appointment of the country's first black captain, his selecting the most consistently transformed team South Africa has so far put out and having the hugely popular and inspirational Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira earn his 100th international cap.

While not exactly error-free, the rugby itself has been dynamic and laden with character, and the team looks the happiest it has been in years. Hell, the Boks have even looked like something approaching a 21st century team this year.

Going into the job, Erasmus' biggest challenges were getting buy-in from his bosses and our notoriously parochial franchises, unearthing genuine new talent, transforming the team and managing a local media that goes giddy at the mention of a new coach.

READ: Rassie's 'honest' transformation stance unifies Boks

If a six-year contract and reporting to himself as director of rugby doesn't suggest buy-in by his bosses, I don't know what does. The positional changes he has requested - and received - with regards to certain players says the franchises are behind him; and Sbu Nkosi et al are players we barely knew last year.

What Erasmus has done particularly well is identify said challenges and own them by being proactive in dealing with them, where most of his predecessors were reactive and, consequently, found themselves resenting being told what to do.

Erasmus has owned the transformation thing to the point where he is doing it on his terms and not on somebody else's numbers. His dealings with the media have been to head them off at the front by being honest to the point of almost being transparent, and constantly reassuring them that not only is he beholden to trying things, he expects he’ll lose games doing so.

As ever, the Rugby Championship and the end-of-year tour will determine just when and how the honeymoon period bubble bursts, but it should be fun to watch with a capable team.

Follow Simnikiwe Xabanisa on Twitter @Simxabanisa

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