How dramatically the tide has turned in four months. Last December Eddie Jones was talking about a historic England Test series win in South Africa against the Springboks. The Springboks, under Allister Coetzee, had slumped to yet another defeat against Wales in Cardiff.
England’s Jones could do no wrong. His team had lost just one Test in two seasons and Coetzee could do no right.
Coetzee was predictably given the boot after 11 wins in 25 Tests and Jones was given a two-year contract extension post 2019 on the basis of 22 wins in 23 Tests.
Now the contract extension won’t apply if Jones’s England don’t win the World Cup. The RFU CEO Steve Brown went public to reaffirm the position on Jones, which was a lack of performance would not be tolerated and any repeat of the disastrous Six Nations campaign, when England finished fifth from sixth, would see Jones gone.
Jones, after 28 Tests, is caught between the path he believed to be the right one and one that starts from scratch.
He is under immense pressure to win in South Africa at a time when there is renewed optimism that the Boks, under the guidance of Rassie Erasmus, won’t be the easy beats of world rugby.
Erasmus has been outspoken from the day of his appointment that results are what counts in professional coaching. Erasmus has a six-year contract to be SA Rugby's director of rugby and the Springboks' head coach. He has gone on record to say that he won’t see six years if the results don’t justify his continued presence at the helm of the Springboks.
Erasmus has also been clear that he believes South Africa has good enough players to beat England in the home Test series. A month into Super Rugby and this belief has strengthened.
The South African Super Rugby quartet of the Stormers, Lions, Bulls and Sharks, have all enjoyed momentary highs amid the collective disappointment. It’s been good enough to give Erasmus even more confidence. Equally, the form of a handful of overseas-based South Africans has also added to Erasmus’s belief that the talent is available to pick a match-23 that, at home, will beat England.
South Africa is currently ranked sixth in the world and England three and a three-nil series win would see that standing reversed going into the Rugby Championship.
Eddie’s England is in crisis after three successive defeats, preceded by a ponderous 12-6 win against Wales at Twickenham. Ireland, now ranked second behind the All Blacks, crushed England at Twickenham to inflict a first Twickenham defeat on England since the 2015 RWC debacle.
Opinion is divided as to what is best for the tour to South Africa. Pick a new squad, pick the same old tired legs that lacked in all departments in the Six Nations failure or start all over again? Eddie Jones, in 2017, could do no wrong. Now it’s a case of many questioning whether he will be able to do any right in 2018.
His team has lost to Scotland, France and Ireland. He must play the Springboks three times in South Africa, with two of the Tests at altitude, and then his November autumn international schedule includes South Africa again and the All Blacks.
England, by December, could be in free fall and the Springboks, by contrast, could be flying.
Erasmus’s player identification will be critical to the result in June. Coetzee’s failing was that he wasn’t a good selector. He was inconsistent and all over the place in his two years. The results were proof that he simply wasn’t up to the job.
Erasmus has made no attempt to soften the expectation. He hasn’t spoken of failed professional structures, a lack of co-operation between franchise and national set-ups, the player drain to Europe or a cycle of players simply not good enough.
When the new Bok coach speaks, it’s about the qualities that are there.
I had a chat to him earlier in the week. Sure, he (like the franchise coaches) would want more consistent results in terms of victories and more complete team performances across all four South African teams.
But, as he put it, take the forwards of one team and the backs of another, in terms of performance, and already you have a national collective that is stronger.
The Bulls and Sharks, when it comes to back play, have produced some sensational rugby. The Lions, against the Sharks and Bulls, were structured, strong and impressive in how they played. There was rugby intelligence and the application of the game plan was ruthless and effective.
The Stormers and Bulls in home matches against the Blues and Hurricanes respectively, physically dominated and won.
It may sound simple to talk of physicality and functional rugby intelligence. But there’s been enough among the South African teams in the first month of Super Rugby to give credence to Erasmus’s view that he can pick 23 players strong and physical enough to win an arm wrestle against England, but also skilled enough to dazzle with ball in hand.
It’s the small South African victories, many of them within the context of an overall Super Rugby defeat, that are all combining for what I have always felt would be a victorious June Test series against England.
June will be the start of Rassie and the end of Eddie.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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