Cape Town – The harsh truth about the Springboks, ever since Heyneke Meyer guided them to their last World Cup semi-final in 2015, is how few players have genuinely looked settled in their positions in the roughly two-and-a-half years subsequently.
How much you want to blame Meyer’s head-coach successor for two years, Allister Coetzee, and now begin to shape some ideas around incumbent Rassie Erasmus on that topic, is really up to you.
But it is also difficult for anyone to deny that a dangerous fluidity currently abounds in far too many Bok berths … certainly based on Saturday’s Mendoza mauling at the hands of Argentina, which inevitably stripped away some of the enthusiasm that had been slowly mounting around what Erasmus is trying to do in regrowth terms.
Finding individuals from that Bok starting XV who could be said with some conviction to have “shone” was a pretty forlorn task.
Across the board, it was a bit of a horror show.
Of course there are several high-profile absentees at present, but if you had to ask me right now to name the players from Saturday’s start-out Bok team who I would pencil in confidently for a World Cup final suddenly played tomorrow (our seventh-ranked national team would be unlikely participants based on current status, of course) I might be able to muster some four or five at very best.
Never mind that hypothetical RWC showpiece, though. Erasmus has enough of a challenge in getting his mix right for the confirmed next task: tackling Australia in Brisbane in the Rugby Championship fixture on Saturday week.
Apart from that stated problem of so many spots hardly looking “locked” by specific individuals anyway, the Bok mastermind has another, unusual head-scratcher to deal with – the fact that a handful of players tumbled fairly spectacularly from hero to zero over the course of the last two Saturdays.
I won’t try to argue that my regular Bok ratings after Tests on Sport24 represent anything more than my subjective opinion, but the clear phenomenon I found after doing the ones from Mendoza was how startlingly several players plunged performance-wise from the Durban victory (34-21, with a bonus point) to the away-leg loss (32-19, no log points to show at all).
Just for example, I had fullback Willie le Roux receding from 7.5/10 (Kings Park) to 5.5 a week later, outside centre Lukhanyo Am dropping from 7 to 4.5, left wing Aphiwe Dyantyi from 8 to 5.5, scrumhalf Faf de Klerk from 6.5 to 4.5, open-side flank Francois Louw from 7 to 4 and lock Eben Etzebeth from 7.5 to 4.
Look, too, at the front row, where the same, menacing staff from Durban inexplicably nose-dived in Mendoza: Frans Malherbe from 7 to 4, Malcolm Marx from 6.5 to 4.5, and Tendai Mtawarira from 7 to 4.5.
It’s difficult in broadest terms to criticise Erasmus, then, over his latest selections: he seemed fully entitled to give a vote of confidence, as he did, to that spotlighted large group of players from the one Test to the next … yet they let him down badly the second time around.
What the trend seems to suggest is that the collective Bok mindset went pear-shaped on Saturday, possibly seduced too much by the words of generous reverence issued by Argentina’s coach Mario Ledesma from the Durban outing. He almost, and shrewdly, made it sound as though the Boks were going to be well-nigh unbeatable in the return clash.
Against that backdrop, Erasmus faces a poser: does he react by making quite widespread changes now, to send out an early message in his still-developing tenure that slackness won’t be tolerated, or would he be more inclined to think that many of his personnel haven’t suddenly become bad players overnight and that panic steps would be foolhardy that at this point?
Given that things had been going pretty swimmingly until the Mendoza crash – the Test series triumph over England, the full house of log points against the Pumas in KwaZulu-Natal – a personal inclination is that he won’t (and with decent enough reason, I’d argue) shake the bag too violently for Brisbane, even if there are some tweaks.
What also needs to be remembered is that quite a few current Bok starters fall into the category of being a little short of game-time, having recently come back from injury layoffs of varying magnitude.
Stalwart, normally highly-valued second-row meanie Etzebeth, for instance, produced a level of vibrancy that was almost too good to be true in Durban, his first game of rugby since early December last year.
In some respects, did he overdo it in his enthusiastic quest to prove he was “back”? It may explain why he, along with several colleagues, just didn’t seem to have quite the same legs in Argentina.
I believe a number of Springboks deserve a chance to atone for Mendoza, and that Erasmus, even if feeling a bit miffed at present, will come around to generally the same thinking in Brisbane next week …
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