The Springboks may only be two Tests into the 2018 season, but there are already clear signs of bigger-picture thinking with the World Cup in mind, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
At face value, this season has just begun, but the fact of the matter is that new coach Rassie Erasmus has been meticulously putting his plans and preparations in place for over six months. And Erasmus is nothing if not meticulous.
The Bok boss knows each Test match between now and the next World Cup is a crucial stepping stone on the journey to Japan – but he is also under no illusions that this Bok side cannot be defined purely on results between then and now.
It’s the reason why Erasmus has put a major focus on the need to build a squad with suitable depth over the next 16 months. Most coaches have four years to build towards a World Cup, Erasmus has less than half.
Yet when I sat opposite the Springbok coach during his first engagement with local media at the beginning of this year, he was emphatic that there was not only enough time to rebuild a competitive team for 2019, but one that could beat England this June.
In order to do that, though, Erasmus has realised there is simply no time to be conservative or opt for safety-first options. He’s asked SA Rugby to assist in his vision – such as scrapping the 30-cap eligibility ruling for overseas-based players – and he has boldly accepted the challenge of tackling transformation and rebuilding a new squad.
In addition, Erasmus knows the Springboks need to win – he has already acknowledged that he won’t last in the job unless they do – but he’s also been upfront about the fact that there will be some hiccups along the way.
Erasmus perhaps summed it up best at the weekend when discussing the team’s long-term vision, which received a much-needed boost following the rousing comeback win over England at Ellis Park.
‘We are going to face challenges in the next few months, and we may lose some matches along the way, but we have to keep making brave calls,’ Erasmus reiterated on Saturday night. ‘We have to put players in pressure situations and see how they react. If we don’t do that, we will never know if we have what it takes to win the World Cup. We have to build and move forward.’
It’s why it would have been massively encouraging to see overseas-based players such as Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen and Willie le Roux vindicating their selection on Saturday. Similarly, debutants Aphiwe Dyantyi, S’bu Nkosi and RG Snyman looked happy and at home on the Test stage.
What it also shows is that Erasmus is a very good selector, and one who will not be afraid to make bold decisions. It was reflected in Siya Kolisi’s inspired appointment as skipper. In picking Lukhanyo Am ahead of seasoned centre Jess Kriel. In backing three Test debutants on Saturday. In selecting five substitutes on Saturday who each have less than five Bok caps to their name.
Of course, one shouldn’t get too carried away after a solitary, hard-fought victory over England, but based on the selections and style of play we saw, it is worth bearing in mind the long-term thinking that surrounds the Springboks.
It’s also worth taking cognisance of Kolisi’s words at his first captain’s press conference last Friday: ‘We are a genuinely happy team at the moment,’ he enthused.
There is still a long way to go for this Bok side, but there is at least evidence that they know exactly which direction they want to head, and how they’re going to get there.