Rassie Erasmus and Handrè Pollard underline threat of England’s challenge is keeping Boks grounded
Rassie Erasmus has ruled out any complacency in the Bok camp before facing England in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup 2023 semi-final at Stade de France.
Twice in a week. There must be a big game or something coming up. That’s twice Rassie Erasmus fronted the media in the space of 24 hours — Monday and Tuesday.
As ever with the Springboks, this was not by chance or fluke. Erasmus is the biggest show in town when it comes to media engagements and his press conferences are a journey of great copy and brilliant insights.
To hear Erasmus speak, is to understand why the Boks are so innovative. They are always willing to try something new and come up with an alternative plan.
It’s a free kick and therefore scrums are allowed. Erasmus didn’t suddenly become coy when quizzed about it. “We wanted to fatigue France because when we played them previously (in November 2022) there was only one scrum in the game,” Erasmus said. No frills, just the facts.
Erasmus is amazingly candid and usually engages with every question fully, really thinking about it before answering. His second appearance this week was designed to satisfy the media mob in the build-up to the semi-final against England.
But it was also to get messages back to the England camp via the many British media in attendance at the Salle Jeanne d’Arc north of Paris.
It’s unlikely the English coaches and players read much South African media, but they are likely to dip into the online versions of the many broadsheets and tabloids Fleet Street has to offer.
So, Erasmus went to the top table and informed and jousted, as ever with bonhomie but also with a hard edge.
There was some praise for England: “They (England) are unbeaten (at Rugby World Cup 2023), they’ve stuck to their guns since (coach) Steve Borthwick was appointed, and they are a team that believe in what they are doing,” said Erasmus.
Then there was a little jab: “They will still be hurting from last year and the 2019 World Cup final, so they’ll be desperate,” Erasmus reminded England with a twinkle in his eye.
Then the consolation: “It always hurts when you lose in a Rugby World Cup. When I was a player and we lost the World Cup against Australia (in the 1999 semi-final), the next couple of games you play against them you think, ‘You guys took it away from us and we want to take it back.’
“And I guess England would feel like that, and they’d want to get one back on us. They are playing for their country, and they’ll want to make their people proud.”
Then the challenge: “So yes, I believe they’ll have beef with us after last year and the last World Cup final. They will be very physical and step up in the set phases, and you never know what their players will dish up, especially (Owen) Farrell and their new scrumhalf (Alex Mitchell), who really lights things up. So, they have threats all over the park.”
Bok flyhalf Handrè Pollard shared the same view as Erasmus.
“I could see the disappointment on their faces four years ago, and I’ve lost a semi-final before, and when that happens you look at yourself,” said Pollard. “I think they’ll be ruthless and take the physicality to the next level. So of course, there’ll be a beef, but we have to go out there and do the job.”
Picking England’s team?
Perhaps his most outrageous moment was when The Times’ UK reporter asked Erasmus what he had written on a sheet of paper in front of him.
Instead of evading the question, Erasmus immediately started rattling off the names of what he and head coach Jacques Nienaber believe will be England’s starting team.
He even mused aloud on whether they would pick the flamboyant Marcus Smith at fullback, or the more defensively sound Freddie Steward in the last line.
It was like a challenge to England to stick with Smith, the man who started in their 30-24 quarterfinal win over Fiji.
“Guessing their team, it’s interesting. Marcus, will he or Freddie play? Marcus has the massive X-factor while Freddie is unbelievable under the high ball,” Erasmus said.
“Will Owen (Farrell) play inside centre with (Manu) Tuilagi outside or will (George) Ford play fly half and drop-goal everything?
“They’ve got Courtney (Lawes) who can play lock and flank, he’s been such a rock at flank for them and they have the energy of the other two young loose forwards.
“They bring energy on the field in all departments. They’ve got (Kyle) Sinckler there, Jamie (George) and so many experienced players who played against us last time.”
No 7-1, no complacency
Although Erasmus didn’t venture to name the Springboks’ lineup, he did float some possibilities and revealed the issues the coaching staff are wrestling over.
“We’re not announcing the team until 48 hours before because we would also like to see which way England will go,” Erasmus said. “When France went 6-2, we went 5-3. It’ll be interesting if England would ever go 6-2. We’d have to adapt a little bit and the half-back pairing and fly halves might switch around.
“Giving Faf (De Klerk) and Handrè (Pollard) a start together is obviously very tempting. There’s temptation to put Lukhanyo (Am) back in. There’s a temptation to put Canan Moodie in the mix, the way England play. There’s temptation to go for the 6-2 split.
“There are lots of temptations because we have a 33-man squad because everyone is fit. A guy like Jean Kleyn can bring physicality.
“It will be tough to have a 7-1 split with Handre and Manie (Libbok) available, so a 7-1 split is out of the question.”
The Boks though, would not be looking ahead to the final at all. The concern over complacency is not a factor.
“There are three realities — what England believes, what the world says and what we believe. England have stuck to what has been working for them and they have not had many injuries,” Erasmus said.
“The average caps in our team will be around 54, for theirs around 59. The average age for us 30, for them 29, the average weight for us, 104kg, for them 105kg. We average 200 minutes per player, they average 216.
“We’ve only had a six-day turnaround as have England. They are the challenge. We stay in our reality, about what we believe from what we have analysed. We know that England will be as tough as it comes.” DM