Rassie Erasmus didn’t shy away from a frank assessment of himself as a coach and the way the Springboks performed in their defeat to Argentina over the weekend.
Embarrassing. Not looking for positives. Not what’s expected. Those are some of the ways Springboks’ Director of Rugby described the side’s performance in Argentina over the weekend.
South Africa succumbed to a 32-19 defeat in Mendoza, with the Pumas ending their 11-match winning streak. Despite the Boks showing some improvements since Erasmus’ tenure started, Saturday was a big lead balloon ride back to reality.
A disjointed performance, where no specific incident seems to stand out as the catalyst for the failure, it would be easy to point to the travel schedule as potential sticking point. But Erasmus wouldn’t have it.
In fact, he had worked travel arrangements into the preparations. The team flew to Argentina early in the week and arrived in Mendoza a day before the Pumas.
“We travelled a day later and in the second half we outplayed them because we were the fresher team. We were playing better rugby in the second half but we just didn’t make use of our opportunities.”
South Africa dominated territory, possession, carries, passes and a bunch of other attacking stats. But having the ball doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know what to do with it, something Erasmus was quick to point out.
“We are all disappointed – not just with the defensive effort but in the first 15, 20 minutes we had so many opportunities to score tries. We did not capitalise on it and we look like a team playing club rugby,” Erasmus added.
In the wake of such mishaps, apportioning blame is frequently part of the post-mortem. Often, it’s the players who bear the brunt of it and while some had a less-than-impressive outing on Saturday, Erasmus didn’t shy away from taking some criticism.
“It is not just the players’ fault, I am the coach and I must make sure we don’t perform like that. I must point the finger at myself – when you play like this then the coach must be doing something badly wrong during the week.”
Talk can be cheap and the cycle of assessment often feels infinite, but there is subtext to Erasmus’ approach that’s worth considering.
Failure, galling as it is, isn’t something to fear. In a hostile media environment, where expectations are high and the response often reactionary, it’s understandable that athletes might be intimidated by the concept, especially if there is a risk that your coach might throw you to the wolves.
But it’s increasingly apparent that Erasmus’s approach values high performance and collective responsibility when those targets aren’t met.
The Boks now have a week off before travelling to Australia and New Zealand for their next matches and Erasmus’ frustration was clear in the aftermath of the defeat.
“We have to turn it around – we had certain plans we wanted to try against Australia but that is out the window now. We have to get back to winning ways and it is win at all costs now. This loss puts us back quite a bit. We wanted to win this game and then give a few guys a chance against Australia.
“We can’t do that now, we lost – so now we have to beat Australia.”
Local media reported that the coach has plans to ease the burden of cross-continental travel by sending a group of players ahead to Wellington while a separate group travels to Brisbane for the fixture against the Wallabies.
Erasmus, like the other coaches before him, is desperate to beat New Zealand. But doing so against a settled team playing at home is challenging.
The mishap over the weekend and other complications such as injury concerns means these plans are unlikely to materialise, but the coach has already called for reinforcements.
The Sunday papers reported that Duane Vermeulen will join the squad, despite a previous agreement that he’d miss the Rugby Championship due to contractual obligations with his Japanese team.
While the Boks and rugby’s development as a whole has a long way to go before it flourishes, it is worth taking a considered response to the systems being implemented under Erasmus’ tutelage.
The principal challenge for him and his lieutenants is engineering a high-performance culture in an environment where the concept is still somewhat alien.
While the results don’t currently reflect that change, the slow-moving pieces do. And that’s something. DM
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