Eddie Jones had Rassie Erasmus floored, gasping for breath, punch drunk, after twenty minutes of rugby at Ellis Park.
Without question, the first 100 minutes of Erasmus’ Springbok coaching career had been a nightmare. Has any Bok coach had a worse first hundred minutes?
In one of the lamest offensive displays of rugby in Bok history at derelict RFK Stadium in Washington D.C., Erasmus’ team lost by a double charge-down to a Wales B team.
Then, the Bok nation watched one of the worst defensive quarters in any Tier One Test team’s history, in Johannesburg. Makeshift wing Mike Brown knocked over half of the Bok backline en route to the first try, Elliot Daly slid in untouched, and then Owen Farrell laughed gleefully as he jogged in with nary a green jersey in the picture. 24-3 after 20:00 and after the Brown try, all of England’s breaks were so clean, tackles weren’t even missed.
A clear path, no rush, no drift, no nothing.
Lukhanyo Am has been one of the form outside centres in Super Rugby for two seasons, but it looked from his positioning like he had never played with Damian de Allende, Aphiwe Dyantyi, and Willie le Roux. Because he hadn’t.
Rassie’s team was devoid of any tested combinations. None. A new coach, a new captain, no caps; only 320 or so in the squad, with a third of those belonging to one Bok prop.
Eddie Jones must have been licking his lips, imagining the post-test Pinotage and his juicy ‘I told you so’ press conference oratory, explaining his genius for basing the team at sea level, splashing about in the Indian Ocean, his ‘Brad Shields is a Bok-beating lock’ gambit, his karate training regimen, and the Brown-Daly switch.
Daly’s 60 metre thumping kick must have punctuated Jones’ reverie: “I’ve hijacked the Saffas’ altitude advantage!”
Boks fans were all having nightmarish flashbacks of Albany and Brighton. I was thinking maybe Eddie really does have savant Saffa-beating skills.
But then …
A strangely calm Bok squad got the ball, and everything sped up. The pack churned up to Super Rugby level warp speed, with Duane Vermeulen acting as a spine, Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard took everything to the line, and Willie le Roux acted as maestro, with two Bolt-like wingers inventing blindsides, coming down tramlines in duo, and finishing everything.
The floodgates opened, and would not close until oranges; 56 points later, and the half was over.
Eddie must have been even more shell-shocked than Rassie. Where was his Billy-motored chariot? Why couldn’t Brown and little George Ford keep the Boks in front of them? Why does every kick seem to land in Thor’s brawny arms? Why do we seem shocked that Wasp Willie dummies a defence?
After the match, for the fifth time in a row the losing coach, Eddie was gracious about Siya Kolisi’s historic leadership, the quality of the Boks’ comeback, and the passion of the home crowd. He seemed to enjoy the journalists’ questions.
But what are the questions he will have to answer for the second Test? Here are ten I can think of. What are yours?
1. How do I use my new Kiwi toy? Is he a breakdown answer? A six? An 8? What exactly is Shields’ point of difference?
2. How do we survive the second half scrums? Really. How? It’s a real question.
3. Should I slow it down? How? Walk to the lineouts, or throw in quickly? Test the Bok wings with high kicks? Or keep pushing it wide?
4. How do I cover for Ford on defence? Pollard was going over or around him like he was pudding.
5. Is Billy match fit? How unfit is he?
6. How can I fix our breakdown? Is Robshaw out on his feet?
7. Should we get a new hotel? At altitude?
8. What’s wrong with Itoje?
9. Leaving aside the first try, is Brown able to wing it?
10. Will I ever have a better first 20:00 against the Boks?