Rassie’s Boks look to rebuild

Paul Kruger Roar Pro

By Paul Kruger, Paul Kruger is a Roar Pro

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    They say when you hit rock bottom there’s nowhere to go but up. Certainly, the last few seasons of international rugby have seen the Boks hit new lows that fans would never have fathomed.

    The 2007 World Cup victory, and historic 2009 season (which brought a Tri-Nations trophy, All Black whitewash and Lions tour victory) seem like a lifetime ago. Test rugby has changed, and South Africa has failed to adapt to a game that has seen previous “minnow” nations not only surpass them in world rankings, but also inflict shock defeats with increasing regularity.

    Indeed, the once proud aura of the mighty Springboks has diminished to a faint glow. The 2009 vintage Boks et a benchmark that has fallen further out of reach with every subsequent season since.

    Pieter de Villiers never really functioned as head coach, and instead served as a figurehead which oversaw a team largely ran by veteran campaigners. His tenure derailed after the dream 2009 season, and we crashed out the 2011 World Cup.

    Enter Heyneke Meyer, who was touted as the messiah for a Bok team that was in freefall. He managed to restore a winning attitude and enjoyed several classic encounters against the All Blacks, but his over-reliance on an ageing core of seasoned Boks proved his downfall in the 2015 World Cup, which saw a historic upset by Japan in the opening match.

    South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer

    Heyneke Meyer (AFP Photo – Lionel Bonaventure)

    This proved to be the start of many shock defeats for the Boks, who under Alistair Coetzee suffered historic losses on home ground against Argentina, historic point margins against the All Blacks, and a first ever loss against Italy.

    By 2017, Northern Hemisphere tours were no longer realistic grand slam opportunities, but were instead a nervous wait to see which team would collect the next Bok scalp.

    No longer do the Boks command respect like the days of yore. Instead, like an ageing prize fighter turned barfly, we lament how we once had class, how we were once contenders, while the rest of the international stage looks on with pity. Rassie Erasmus has inherited a herculean task; to rebuild a team in tatters, and to restore pride in a tarnished brand.

    I won’t touch too much on last week’s Test against Wales in Washington DC. The true test of mettle was going to be this opener against England. After 18 minutes of play, the Boks found themselves trailing 24-3, and another embarrassment seemed inevitable.

    Somehow, momentum shifted, and several key members of this proud Bok team can be counted among the ones who turned the tide. The explosive Faf de Klerk, who was unceremoniously dumped from the 2016 Springbok line-up altogether, played with an infectious ferocity.

    He was courageous in defence against bigger opposition, and he galvanised the team with his relentless energy. His distribution was speedy, keeping the defence on edge and creating crucial holes.

    Faf’s effort was exemplified around the 60-minute mark, where he tackled the big England No 8 off the base of a scrum in their 22, and somehow found himself down the other end of the field, again making a crucial tackle again on a bigger man, followed by forcing a turnover at the ruck!

    Rassie Erasmus

    New Boks coach Rassie Erasmus. (Photo By Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

    After the horror seasons fans have endured the past few years, it is reward enough to merely see a Bok team play with heart and intensity.

    I was pleased to see the players picking each other up with a renewed positivity, surrounding one another with congratulations when we won key turnovers, made big tackles and scored tries. This created belief and carried into other aspects of our game.

    The defence, while shaky in the opening quarter, gradually became more impressive throughout the game. There was a pack mentality to our tackling and rucking, which led to crucial turnovers from poached balls or successful counter rucks.

    The forwards were industrious, with Duane Vermeulen, Kolisi and Snyman as standouts. Vermeulen was a juggernaut, taking several high balls, making big hits, and requiring at least three English defenders to take him down whenever he had ball in hand.

    Offensively, we impressed with ball skills not displayed by a Springbok team in recent memory. The ball was taken at pace, rather than the lumbering one-off pick and go strategy of past seasons.

    Previously, flat balls to players coming at speed usually ended with a knock on. However, it was reassuring to see that we consistently distributed the ball to players who were moving at pace, rather than passes to stationary players standing at depth.

    Our backs and forwards were carrying the ball in both hands to keep the opposition guessing, and offloading in the tackle to keep the attack alive. RG Snyman’s perfectly timed pass out wide to Dyanti was not something I would have expected from a Bok forward, who are traditionally more intent on going forward than distributing the ball.

    The skills displayed by Sbu Nksosi were exemplary, with a deft grubber leading to his first try. Quick hands were also on display during his second try, when Le Roux expertly drew in two defenders and swung a wide pass, which was quickly popped back inside the Nkosi.

    Most impressively, our offensive kicks during this match were strategic probes aimed at taking advantage of space, rather than a primary gameplan sacrificing precious possession.

    A careful analysis will need to be made in order to correct the defensive lapses that led to England taking such an impressive early lead.

    Unfortunately, against a team like New Zealand, such momentum would be hard to reverse, and we would do well to avoid repeating an opening quarter like that again. There was some soft defence on display during Brown’s first try, and Pollard will no doubt receive stern wards for his effort.

    Courtnall Skosan South Africa Rugby Union Springboks 2017

    Courtnall Skosan of South Africa (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

    The Boks will also need to realise that they very much let England back into this game during the last ten minutes. The insistence to play defensively during the last quarter of a match when we are leading is a spectre that still haunts Springbok mindset.

    Furthermore, the strategy of substituting a replacement flyhalf with five minutes to go continues to baffle. To expect any meaningful benefit in replacing such a key position at such a crucial time defies belief, and Jantjies will need to elevate his effort in the future. His attempted tackle during England’s last try was lacklustre, and with players like Faf and Nkosi displaying such intensity we can reasonably expect that laziness won’t be tolerated in this squad.

    Rassie has hopefully ushered in a new era of Bok Rugby. The old guard is gone, and whatever strategies previously implemented were found lacking time and again.

    Against England, the forwards boasted traditional Bok strengths of hard hits and true grit, but finesse as well.

    Our backline, though inexperienced, also showed promise. One game does not a dynasty make, however there was cause for celebration in this classic comeback victory.

    There is a long way to go before next year’s World Cup, and much more to prove from this young squad, but for once I can see myself looking forward to an upcoming Springbok match.

    Rebuild announcement

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    The Crowd Says (13)

    • Roar Guru

      June 12th 2018 @ 4:26am
      Corne Van Vuuren said | June 12th 2018 @ 4:26am | ! Report

      Yep, 2014-2017 should never be spoken of again.

      Hopefully Rassie will be able to build a mature and experienced team for 2023 rugby world cup. I think 2019 will be too early for great expectations.

      • Roar Pro

        June 12th 2018 @ 8:46am
        Paul Kruger said | June 12th 2018 @ 8:46am | ! Report

        Agreed Corne(biltong?). I’m not even focussed on silverware at the moment. Like I mentioned, the fact that we are playing with energy is reason enough to be excited.

        But if we back these young guys and try to cement some positions prior to 2023..watch out!

      • Roar Guru

        June 12th 2018 @ 10:48am
        Ralph said | June 12th 2018 @ 10:48am | ! Report

        I have been a Rassie fan since his playing days.

        I remember his after match interviews, especially when he had lost. Direct, no nonsense, blaming nobody else and complimenting the winning team without a smile because he hated the loss.

        Seems like an honest humble guy. I have all the time in the world for him.

      • June 12th 2018 @ 11:41am
        Fionn said | June 12th 2018 @ 11:41am | ! Report

        I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the Boks were the second best team in the world by 2019.

    • Roar Guru

      June 12th 2018 @ 4:54am
      Harry Jones said | June 12th 2018 @ 4:54am | ! Report

      Nice article, Paul.

      On the defensive lapses …

      I took a look at the five tries we leaked.

      I’m a big, big fan of Am, but realistically, he was at fault on three of them. The reason Pollard was flying over there to try to hit Brown (and failed, miserably) was he at least SAW the problem developing.

      Am will improve.

      Also, our young wings have to “stay at home” a bit longer on those wide English hard lines… Let the decoy play itself out.

      • Roar Guru

        June 12th 2018 @ 5:00am
        Harry Jones said | June 12th 2018 @ 5:00am | ! Report

        On May’s try, Notshe had a clear shot if he just dove, with the touchline his friend. He did nothing. Not happy about that.

        • Roar Pro

          June 12th 2018 @ 9:32am
          Jonty Shonty said | June 12th 2018 @ 9:32am | ! Report

          I noticed that too. Happy to see him in the mix though. He needs to play consistently for the Stormers though.

    • Roar Pro

      June 12th 2018 @ 8:44am
      Paul Kruger said | June 12th 2018 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      Thanks for commenting Harry–the midfield is a question mark that has been hanging around since JdV and Jaque Fourie stopped playing. We haven’t had a settled combination since and it definitely shows.

      I think last week Kriel showed that he also has some defensive frailties.

      Esterhuizen however looked like a bulldozer.

      As for Pollard he luckily gives as good as he takes, and his defense is usually reliable. Need solid tacklers at 10-13…

    • Roar Pro

      June 12th 2018 @ 9:30am
      Jonty Shonty said | June 12th 2018 @ 9:30am | ! Report

      Thanks Paul. Nice summary.

      I ended up getting up at 1pm to watch the game. Luckily I had a few ales during the Wallabies game so my emotions were dulled somewhat during the first 20. But I couldn’t believe how it unfolded.

      Overall, I think Rassie has taken a punt on a bunch of inexperienced players who will make mistakes. But he is going to stick with them in the lead up to the world cup (and maybe beyond!) so that they learn in the test environment, something which Toetie should have done two years ago.

      Once the euphoria of the win settles down, they will need to pick through the bones and identify what went wrong. As has been mentioned, the defense was a problem but I do think this is a priority for Rassie’s team so it will get sorted. There were also some poor decisions made by a few players at the end, but again, hopefully a learning experience.

      Marx and Etzebeth to come back in and that pack looks solid (Mbonambi was solid though). I do wonder if Am would benefit with having Esterhuisen inside him? Faf’s impact on the game was immense. Nkosi looked a test player and Willie, in space, is devastating.

      Lot’s to be excited about, but lot’s of work to do as well.

    • Roar Pro

      June 12th 2018 @ 10:10am
      Paul Kruger said | June 12th 2018 @ 10:10am | ! Report

      Cheers Jonty. I was happy to see new faces bringing a bit of change to our attack.

      And as for new guys making mistakes- at least they seem to be positive ones a lot of the time. Guys trying to make something happen rather than being passive.
      That comeback will be instrumental in shaping our mental fortitude.

      Let’s hope we come off the blocks a lot better this weekend.

    • Roar Guru

      June 12th 2018 @ 10:44am
      Ralph said | June 12th 2018 @ 10:44am | ! Report

      Good write up Paul.

      Your backs looked exciting, albeit with a few mistakes, but the enthusiasm was more important.

      Your forwards had bite.

      Your older guys had enough leadership to steady the ship and keep playing rugby.

      It was only a three point win, so lots to work on.

      Welcome back.

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