It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell what Rassie Erasmus is trying to achieve with this Springbok side in the short and long term, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Surely not. That was my reaction to the news that Malcolm Marx, the 2017 SA Rugby Player of the Year, was going to ride the bench in Brisbane.
My reaction was based on a conversation I had with former Bok captain John Smit a few weeks earlier. Smit told me that Marx was easily the Boks’ best player at present.
My reaction was also based on the comments made by Erasmus after the Boks’ record defeat to Argentina in Mendoza. The coach’s statement about adopting a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality for the remainder of the Rugby Championship left no room for interpretation. Like many, I assumed that Erasmus would select the best available side in Brisbane, and in Wellington, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria thereafter.
When it was confirmed that Bongi Mbonambi would start at hooker and Marx would ride the bench at the team announcement a few days later, I listened with interest as Erasmus offered an explanation about Marx’s heavy workload.
Marx, of course, missed the four Tests in June due to injury. It was hard to understand why he would require careful management at this stage of the season, unless he was nursing another injury.
Erasmus’ management of these two players at Suncorp Stadium was equally perplexing. Mbonambi was subbed in the 35th minute after failing to hit his target at a lineout on the Bok tryline.
The mistake – which was as much the fault of the player who called the throw as the individual who attempted to execute it – resulted in a turnover and seven points for the Wallabies at a crucial stage of the contest. The substitution – Mbonambi off, Marx on – prompted all sorts of questions.
Was Mbonambi being blamed for the error? Was Marx’s workload no longer an issue? It was a confusing move on several levels.
Erasmus offered some answers after the match. They only led to more questions.
Erasmus felt that Mbonambi had ’emptied the tank’ and needed to be subbed. There was no talk of an injury, and it was inferred that the hooker had simply run out of gas after 35 minutes of rugby.
The player picked to start couldn’t complete the first half due to exhaustion. The player on the bench, who couldn’t start because of a heavy workload earlier in the season, was brought on early and ended up getting 45 minutes of game time.
Try and make sense of that.
The comments made by Erasmus in recent weeks, and indeed some of his selections and substitutions, have contrasted those made in the early days of his tenure. Back in June, Erasmus was open and honest about his plan for the Boks, and his actions backed up his words.
Erasmus was transparent about his mandate to win games, transform the team, and develop a wider squad ahead of the 2019 World Cup. He said that there would be a few growing pains and possibly a few losses along the way.
He delivered on his promises in June. The Boks ticked a big box when they beat Eddie Jones’ England 2-1. They fielded a more transformed side across the four Tests, and as many as 16 players were handed debuts.
Erasmus blooded two more players in the Test against Argentina in Durban. Again, it felt like he was getting it right in terms of putting plans in place ahead of the World Cup. The team was a work in progress, but the positives outweighed the negatives.
It’s been harder to make sense of what transpired in Mendoza and Brisbane. The players themselves are certainly culpable. They lacked aggression as well as game intelligence in the first match away from home, while their poor handling and decision-making cost them dearly in the second.
Patience is needed during this period of transition. While a narrow loss should never be celebrated, we have to accept the fact that the Boks are as low as seventh in the World Rugby rankings, and they’re not going to reach the pinnacle overnight.
Then again, the team needs to give the South African rugby community a reason to be patient. Anyone can come in and promise a brighter tomorrow. We need to see some evidence that change is afoot.
We saw progress in the series against England. There were encouraging signs in the first game against Argentina – nothing to suggest that the Boks were suddenly world champions in waiting, but certainly enough to confirm they were on the right track.
The past few weeks have seen the side taking a giant step backwards. Erasmus has made some selections and comments that have been at odds with his mandate to win Test matches in the short term and develop a strong squad with a view to the World Cup.
One would hope that Erasmus backs his strongest available combination for the next game in Wellington. The All Blacks were without a host of stars for the recent clash against Argentina, yet still managed to score six tries and 46 points. It’s going to take everything the Boks have just to avoid another humiliating loss at the hands of the Kiwis.
Selecting the strongest available side will mean more changes, though. It will mean starting from scratch. Again, one has to wonder why the best side wasn’t backed from the outset of the tour.
Perhaps the Boks will surprise us with an improved showing in Wellington. Perhaps they will bounce back in Port Elizabeth and then push the All Blacks close – as they did in Cape Town last year – in the final Rugby Championship Test in Pretoria.
It’s more likely that the Boks will lose at least two of their next three Tests. What will make those results particularly hard to stomach is a lack of progress in key areas.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images