Rugby codebreakers Erasmus and Nienaber have new problem to crack
In eight weeks’ time, the coaches’ skills will be tested when the British & Irish Lions tour starts.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Less than an hour after the Springboks beat England in the 2019 World Cup final, Rassie Erasmus steered the conversation towards the team’s next major assignment.
“We have about 600 days until the British & Irish Lions arrive for the tour of South Africa,” he said, with a look of concern on his face. The Webb Ellis Cup sat between Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi. Even in the team’s greatest moment, Erasmus stressed the importance of planning for a series that could potentially bolster – or indeed threaten – the team’s legacy.
Nobody could have predicted that a global pandemic would shake rugby to its core and that the world champions would play zero Tests for the better part of two years. Much has transpired over the past 19 months, and Erasmus and new head coach Jacques Nienaber have scrambled for solutions to a complex problem.
Reputations put to the test
Few will forget how they lifted the team out of the mire in 2018; how they led the Boks to a win against the All Blacks in New Zealand, and how they guided the side to a Rugby Championship title and subsequently a World Cup triumph.
With these successes in mind, one is inclined to believe that they will rise to the next challenge and prepare the Boks for battle in a short space of time. Although eight weeks remain until the teams collide on 24 July, Erasmus and Nienaber could have as few as three of those weeks with the first-choice Bok group.
National alignment camps have been staged over the past few months, and players of national interest (PONIs) in South Africa and abroad have been informed about the team’s plans for the upcoming Test season.
And yet, as a senior Springbok confirmed to DM168 this past week, those plans can only advance to the next stage after the full squad gathers at the end of June.
European’s impact on preparations
PONIs are currently on duty for their clubs at home and abroad. There’s a lot of provincial rugby to get through before the Test series against the Lions.
Pro14 Rugby recently confirmed that the winners of the Rainbow Cup SA will face the winners of the Pro14 Rainbow Cup in a “final” after the regular season has concluded.
This fixture will give stakeholders in Europe and South Africa a taste of what to expect when the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers join an expanded Pro16 later this year.
Eventually, the South African teams will have the chance to qualify for the Champions Cup – arguably the best club competition in the world.
It’s a fixture that makes sense in the context of South African rugby’s long-term shift to the northern hemisphere. It makes little sense, however, in the context of the upcoming Lions series and could rob top players such as Duane Vermeulen and Trevor Nyakane – senior members of the Bulls, the favourites to advance to the decider – of an extensive opportunity to train with the Boks.
The Bok coaches will, of course, have to wait until the end of June to access all the South African players based in the United Kingdom and Europe. It may please them to see stars Cheslin Kolbe, Handré Pollard and several others competing for their clubs in the Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup finals this weekend.
The European domestic leagues will, however, continue to run for many gruelling weeks yet.
The French Top 14 final will be staged on 25 June and the English Premiership decider a day later. South African players who are set to feature in the Lions series are unlikely to be released early. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise to see Kolbe featuring for Toulouse in the Top 14 final, or Faf de Klerk representing Sale Sharks in England’s championship match.
Quest for synergy
Bok assistant coach Felix Jones, who is based in Dublin, has been tasked with monitoring the form of these overseas players and relaying valuable intel back to the SA Rugby HQ in Cape Town. It’s fair to say that Jones and the other Bok coaches are at an advanced stage of their preparations as far as the pre-series analysis is concerned.
Players such as Kolbe are enjoying a rich vein of form. But again, as a couple of sources have confirmed to DM168 this past week, teams rather than individuals win big series and tournaments, and you can’t simulate team synergy.
To reiterate, the Bok team that won the World Cup hasn’t played as a unit for 19 months. The players need to come together as soon as possible.
SA Rugby has lined up two “warm-up” Tests against Georgia, which will take place on 2 and 9 July. Matches against the eastern European side – who are listed at 12th on the World Rugby rankings – are unlikely to prepare the Boks for the physicality and intensity they will experience in a full-blooded battle against the Lions.
The two Tests will, however, serve as an opportunity for the Boks to settle back into familiar combinations in a game-situation.
How will Erasmus and Nienaber manage the players ahead of those games? Many of the South Africa-based players will be available in the weeks leading up to the first Test against Georgia. The players based in Europe may only arrive back in the country a few days before the game.
The coaches may be tempted to field a side comprised exclusively of South Africa-based players. But if the coaches pursue that selection policy, they will forgo a valuable opportunity to give the likely first-choice team a run together before the Lions Tests.
A Lions tour like no other
This Lions tour will be unique on many fronts. All eight matches will be played behind closed doors, and across two bio-secure environments in Gauteng and Cape Town.
The tourists will compete against the four big franchises in the lead-up to the Test series. Players in the Bok squad will be available to their provincial teams.
Given the challenges, it’s easy to understand why the coaches might keep their best players in camp for the entirety of the tour; fielding players in the South African A match and then in the three Tests. It’s not worth risking Kolisi, for example, in the Sharks’ match against the touring Lions.
The Boks are unlikely to stray from the formula that brought them such unprecedented success in 2019. It’s encouraging to think that so many of the men who contributed to the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup title triumphs are still available for selection. What’s more, there are a number of impressive youngsters pushing for an opportunity.
Nienaber will hope that the bulk of those players remain fit in the lead-up to the Lions Tests, and that key figures such as Lood de Jager and RG Snyman bounce back from their serious injuries to rejoin the group.
While South Africa boasts impressive depth in most positions, their ability to field a bona fide “Bomb Squad” – which, at the 2019 World Cup, included a reserve tight-five as good as the starting props and locks – may depend on De Jager and Snyman’s availability.
Although nearly two years have passed, South Africa is yet to find another player in the mould of Frans Steyn. The versatile veteran covers every backline position bar scrumhalf, and his inclusion allows for the coaches to pick an extra forward – and ultimately a six-two split – on the bench. If Steyn breaks down in the coming weeks, the Boks may have to rethink this strategy.
There has been so much uncertainty around this tour. The fixtures have been confirmed, but the situation remains complicated, and both sets of coaches will face significant challenges.
If Erasmus and Nienaber succeed in bringing a full-strength squad together and preparing them for what many former players – including the great Springbok captain John Smit – describe as the most brutal challenge of their careers, they will have performed another minor miracle.
And yet, after what was witnessed in 2018 and 2019, you wouldn’t bet against them. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.