Springboks vs England

Series Preview

 

The sideshows are over; Super Rugby has hit the pause button; the utter waste of time in Washington DC is consigned to history in a file marked “Why?” and the real work of the month of June lies ahead.

The Aussies are about to play a Test series against Ireland, the All Blacks are taking on France, Wales visit the Pumas in Argentina, and the Springboks host England in South Africa.

The English Invasion

Over the centuries, visits by Englishmen to South African (and other) shores were not always welcome. It was their habit of arriving by ship off some foreign shore and sending a landing party off in a rowing boat. They would arrive on shore with a pre-printed notice, a hammer and some nails, wrapped in the Union Jack. They would unfurl the flag, tie it to a convenient pole, and then plant it in the ground. As soon as that chore was done, they would look for a suitable tree and pin their notice to it, using the hammer and nails they had brought for this very purpose. A bugle would sound and someone in a uniform with lots of braid and stuff would read the notice out aloud.

The notice informed the local population that they, the English, had formally taken possession of the country in the name of whichever King or Queen was lolling on the throne back in good old England, and that all the locals were forthwith subjects of His/Her Majesty and thus subject to English laws. Anyone who objected was suitably punished, most usually by means of quick slice f a sword or a musket ball to the brain.

Wars were fought, soldiers soldiered, politicians rambled and lunched, fortunes were made and taxes were levied. Countries were governed, whether they wanted to be governed or not, all under the gaze of steely eyes staring down an aquiline nose.

Times have changed since those arrogant colonial days. The English still bring flags, but only to wave them enthusiastically in the stands of various sports stadia as one or another of their teams take on the locals in the modern equivalent of colonisation. They again seek rights, but only bragging rights.

This is the background to the Springboks hosting England in a three-Test series that starts this coming weekend.

Both teams have much at stake. Both have coaches with much to prove.

The Legacy

Rassie Erasmus has replaced Allister Coetzee after the most disastrous coaching regime in history was summarily ended two years early.

South Africans are desperate for good news and a winning team. Much is thus expected of the new coach and his approach to the game.

One should issue a sober warning: Rome was not built in a day, and it is perhaps hugely overoptimistic to expect Erasmus to achieve a rugby miracle in the short time he has been in charge. He has certainly been empowered in a way few previous coaches have been given the freedom to do what they think is right, but he has to deal with a horrid legacy left by both the two previous national coaches.

When Heyneke Meyer was appointed Springbok coach, he arrived with much the same burden of expectation as does Rassie Erasmus. He was the saviour, the Knight in Shining Armour who would fix everything that had gone wrong under his predecessor, Pieter de Villiers.

For a while it looked as if Meyer would get things right. In his first year in charge, he beat England by 2 wins and a draw, and had some creditable results in the Rugby Championships, winning against Argentina and Australia and ending third on the log. The win over Australia took South Africa up to 2nd place on the World Rugby rankings, behind New Zealand.

The end-of-the-year tour to the north was equally successful, with a clean sweep of wins over Ireland, Scotland, and England.

2013 was also a fairly good year for Meyer as he claimed 6 consecutive wins, and second place in the Rugby Champs, losing the decider 38 – 27 to the All Blacks. The end of the year tour again yielded a clean sweep of victories. He was building a team based on a core of older, hugely experienced campaigners, the “Dagga Boys” of rugby. (He went so far as to recall a number of the old boys from their retirement from the game!)

(For those that do not know the term: “Dagga Boy” is a term used to describe old and usually solitary buffalo bulls who are forced out of the herd by younger, more virile bulls. Do not make the mistake of thinking “Dagga Boys” are soft targets. Their age and experience, coupled to enormous power makes them especially dangerous in their natural environment. They will take on a pride of lions all by themselves, and have the bush-smarts to win!) 

Things were looking good for the Meyer-regime as 2014 kicked off with a 2-0 series win over Wales. A win over the All Blacks 27 – 25 at Ellis Park again gave the Springboks 2nd place in the Rugby Championships.

And then the wheels started to wobble.

The year-end tour saw South Africa lose 2 matches, to Ireland 29–15 and then Wales 12–6. On his return home Meyer found that the fickle South African rugby media was firmly on his case. He was criticised for losing the two games, his dagga boy selections were questioned, and his game plan was under severe scrutiny.

The South African media are ultra-demanding and very quick to whip out the knives.

When the Springboks started the 2015 Rugby Championships with a loss, despite playing an exciting new brand of rugby, the rugby media exploded in full throated fury!

The pressure on Meyer ramped up, and up, and he blinked.

Instead of staying with his expressed plan of playing modern rugby he immediately abandoned his new game plan and fell back on what he termed “South Africa’s Traditional Strengths” – Staid, conservative forward oriented rugby. He reverted to his “Dagga Boys” – calling up even more of the old guard, and focussed on old-school rugby.

When his squad for the Rugby World Cup was announced, he had a team with an average age of 28. Thirteen (42%) of his squad were over the age of 30. He also had 7 players aged 28 or 29.

It was a veritable Dad’s Army. Meyer was banking on experience to beat youth, skill, pace, and fitness. It was never going to work.

By the time the 2015 World Cup was over the error in Meyer’s thinking had been brutally exposed, and there was no way the rugby public, the media, nor the powers-that-be would allow him another term as Springbok coach.

He rode off into the sunset, protesting somewhat……

The truth of the Meyer disaster only became evident the next year, when new coach Allister Coetzee had to select a Springbok team to face the Irish.

When he started to look for the core of his team, the experienced players from the Meyer-regime that he could build on, the proverbial pantry cupboard was empty.

All those old “Dagga Boys” had retired from the game, their last tilt at glory having ended in ignominy at the World Cup. Their departure was not unexpected.

The real problem, Meyer’s real legacy, was that a host of the slightly younger players that Meyer had ignored or left out of his World Cup squad had decided that they had no chance of being selected for national honours anymore, and had left the country to go and play their rugby in the lucrative norther hemispherean competitions. And there were no youngsters being nurtured in the system either.

Heyneke Meyer had done South African rugby the worst possible damage.

He had left nothing but scorched earth behind, no legacy of younger players, blooded and nurtured, ready to step up and assume the leadership roles in the Springbok squad.

Allister Coetzee would field the most inexperienced squad ever to represent South Africa in a (real) Test match when he sent his charges out to face Ireland. He lost that one 26 – 20 despite the Springboks having a 15 to 14 numerical advantage for 60 minutes after CJ Stander was red-carded for his brutal tackle on Pat Lambie. It was the Springboks first ever loss to the Irish on South African soil.

This was just the first unwanted record to be set by Allister Coetzee as a coach.

He would go on to chalk up a host of additional records, including that first ever defeat to Ireland in South Africa. He would record the first ever away defeat to Argentina, the first ever defeat to Italy, the worst ever year in Springbok history – 4 wins from 12 Tests, the most points ever conceded against New Zealand (57) in both 2016 and 2017, and the biggest margin of defeat ever against New Zealand (57-0).

He followed that with the most points ever conceded against Ireland – home or away – in 111 years (38), beating the 32 scored by the Irish in Dublin in 2006, and the biggest margin of defeat – 35 – beating the previous mark of 17 in 2006 (32-15).

There are mitigating factors to Coetzee’s disastrous performance as a coach. He took over a national squad that had been denuded of experienced players, both by his predecessor’s persistence with selecting old men and his perverse neglect of a youth development strategy. The national cupboard was left empty by Heyneke Meyer.

Coetzee suffered all manner of political interference in the selection of his own coaching squad and team management staff. He was not allowed the freedom to build his own team. He was equally pressurised in his selection of players, with permission to draw on overseas based player resources only very grudgingly given from time to time.

His appointment was only announced midway through the Super Rugby season of 2016. He was given no chance to influence the way the Super franchises would play the game, nor any power to influence events.

At the time I suggested that it seemed he was being set up to fail.

But that does not excuse his complete lack of player management, his strange selections, and his weird lack of a discernible game plan. A number of quality players found themselves superfluous to Allister’s needs, and promptly left the country, as others had before.

In his first couple of games in charge Allister encouraged his team to play a high-risk high-reward style of rugby, but with little focus on structures, support lines, and skills. When this strategy failed he did a “Meyer” and reverted those “traditional strengths” that had failed his predecessor so miserably. He started to play forward oriented midfield rugby, with no scoring strategy, while calling up a couple of his own Dagga Boys! Players like Willem Alberts, Morne Steyn, and Johan Goosen suddenly emerged from the darkness, straight back into the Springbok set-up!

None of it helped, as Allister’s wayward selection policy and weirdly inconsistent game plan melted into a pool of misery.

The inevitability of his demise was visible to everyone, except Allister Coetzee. He refused to fall on his sword and eventually rode off into the sunset with a “reveal all” letter containing a litany of complaints and excuses.

Rassie Erasmus

Rassie Erasmus is a very brave man. He accepted the proffered poison chalice that is the Springbok coaching job.

There were legitimate questions asked about his appointment processes, his business relationships with some of the employees of the SA Rugby Union, and the ease with which he has been able to side-step the roadblocks the politico-administrators had placed in the paths of his predecessors.

Whatever the answers to those questions, it appears that Rassie has been empowered to do whatever it takes to restore Springbok rugby to the place and space supporters believe it should occupy.

Not least, of course, is the dire financial situation in which South African Rugby find itself. The blazer-wearing administrators desperately need a winning team to generate the interest, sponsorships, and income the union needs.

Much is expected of Rassie Erasmus!

He is certainly the best qualified coach to take the reins in modern history. He has the formal rugby qualifications. He has the coaching credentials and track record. He also has the administrative credentials and track record.

He is a fully professional rugby man.

Unique amongst the modern generation of coaches, he has also played Test rugby! He understands the pressures and emotions that are found out on the field of rugby combat. He has been there. Amongst his fellow national coaches, it is only Scotland’s Gregor Townsend that has played Test Match rugby. None of Steve Hansen, Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt, Daniel Hourcade, Eddie Jones, Jacques Brunel or Warren Gatland have played in a Test. (Gatland played for the All Blacks, but never in a Test match.)

Erasmus has been granted permission to select overseas-based players, something that was a constant bone of contention for Allister Coetzee, although he did get some foreign based players into his squad.

For the first time in history it also seems that the various provincial unions and Super rugby franchises are on the same page as the national coach. All the franchises and almost all the unions are attempting to shift their style of rugby into the modern era. There are many teething problems and hurdles as the comparative lack of modern skill-sets has to be addressed, and cast-in-concrete mind-sets have to be dismantled with power tools before a new foundation can be laid.

So far, in 2018, it does seem that the first steps have been taken as teams across the country, at every level of the game, embrace the modern style of open ball-in-hand rugby.

This does not suggest that teams do not fall back into their old comfort zones when the pressure builds. This is inevitable, but the general trend has been towards a newly-conceived baby called Modern South African Rugby.

Much is expected of the Rassie Erasmus Era.

Prospects in 2018

The Rassie Erasmus-era kicked off this past Saturday with a disappointing 22-20 defeat to Wales in Washington DC.

With that result, Erasmus, somewhat unfairly, became the second Bok coach in the professional era – after Allister Coetzee – to lose the first Test of his tenure. This game was not a “Test” in the accepted definition of such a game being a test of the best each country has to offer. It was two second-string outfits playing against each other on a neutral ground, in front of some bemused locals and a couple of vocal expatriates.

The “Springbok” team adopted some strange kick-and-chase tactics on a wet and slippery surface. Perhaps the right strategy in those playing conditions, if the designated kickers knew how to place their kicks and the designated chasers knew where the ball was going.  It was all a bit poorly executed by a team full of rookies.

The game against Wales must simply be written off as history, in the knowledge that this was a team that had never played together before, and is most unlikely to play together ever again.

However, we must look at the tactics they employed and wonder whether the tactics will change by the weekend? If they play like that against England the result may be a forgone conclusion!

This series against England will be the first measure of the impact that Rassie Erasmus has had on Springbok Rugby.

Eddie Jones

England coach Eddie Jones is under some pretty serious pressure of his own. He has been berated for England’s 5th place in the recent Six Nations tournament. He has been heavily criticised for three consecutive losses in that 2018 Six Nations tournament. England expected victory and the title, and Eddie did not deliver.

His tenure as coach has been questioned, with suggestions that the extension of his contract beyond 2019 was premature and a mistake. Some have even suggested that he be recalled and replaced before the 2019 World Cup.

This despite the fact that England have won 24 out of 28 Tests and claimed two Six Nations titles since Jones took over the reins.

Such is the fickle nature of rugby supporters and the media.

The 2018 Series

A host of England’s stars and journeymen will miss the three-Test series in South Africa. The list of players who are not able to tour South Africa is enormous. There are 24 names that would normally be considered regular members of Eddie Jones’ England squad.

They are: Danny Care (Harlequins), Jack Clifford (Harlequins), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Tom Dunn (Bath Rugby), Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), James Haskell (Wasps), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), George Kruis (Saracens), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Alex Lewington (London Irish), Harry Mallinder (Northampton Saints), Joe Marchant (Harlequins), Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs), Beno Obano (Bath Rugby), Cameron Redpath (Sale Sharks), Semesa Rokoduguni (Bath Rugby), Will Spencer (Worcester Warriors), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers), Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens), Jack Willis (Wasps)

Some of the players represent the spine of the team insofar experience and leadership are concerned. Eddie’s preferred captain, Dylan Hartley, is not on tour. Front-row strongman Dan Cole, and lock Courtney Lawes are amongst the leadership group who are missing. As is Danny Care, Jonathan Joseph, Manu Tuilagi and Anthony Watson. These are some of the core players in England’s successes of the Eddie Jones era.

Eddie’s task is already a difficult one. England have never won a Test series in South Africa. He when this tour was added to the international fixture list, Eddie promised that history would be rewritten, but that was when he and his team were surfing on the crest of a wave of form and fitness. Now he has to fuse together a new team as he deals with the massive injury list and unavailability of senior players.

Whilst England have their selection woes, South Africa have a whole lot of pains of a different type.

Once again, a coach has taken over the reins of a team in complete disarray. He has to find a way to patch over the holes in the hull of ship that was sinking after the malfunctional coaching of his two predecessors. He has to stop the inflow of water that threatens to send the ship to the bottom, while he has to find a way to stop the passengers abandoning the ship for the dry land called European and English rugby. (I almost used the analogy of rats leaving a sinking ship…..)

Erasmus has to change the collective mindsets of coaches and administrators that cling to old amateur ideas on the management of the game and the way it should be played. He has to drag them, kicking and screaming their resistance to change, into the professional 21st century.

He has to deal with those aging fans who still cling to the image of a glorious Springbok past, when men were men and the world trembled at their approach. He has to destroy their old monuments and prejudices.

He has to deal with the expectations of younger fans who want excitement and instant results. The moderns who want it all and want it now.

And he has to deal with the most unforgiving, the most demanding, and the most fickle element of them all, the established rugby media who demand instant success and will turn on him like rabid dogs if he fails to deliver. They are the image makers, and breakers, that previous Bok coaches all came to fear.

As I said earlier: Rassie Erasmus is a very brave man.

The Test Series

South Africa in June.

Not the most welcoming place for visitors from the north.

It is winter, it is cold, and many areas of the country are dusty and bleak.

The rugby venues are enormous, and can be vociferously hostile too.

The South African fans can be some of the most ungracious in the world. Jeeringly triumphant if their team is doing well, and a bunch of miserable aggresive sods when the team is doing badly.

To be sure, there will be friendly receptions and cocktail parties. There may even be a couple of hours in a game reserve or some similarly distracting place to relax, but for the most part the visiting team will find themselves under some kind of siege. Three Tests in three weeks does not give much chance for relaxation. Add the relentless demands for media conferences, team practices, analysis sessions, training, tactical discussions, gym sessions, physiotherapy and the like, and it can be a ruthless couple of weeks.

Playing in South Africa is no walk in the park. The Boks have never lost a home series to any one of England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The last time a team from up north won a series was when the British & Irish Lions triumphed 2-1 in 1997.

England need a win to restore their focus on the 2019 World Cup. They need the confidence boost, they need the edge a win in South Africa will give them. It would restore Eddie Jones’ image, his aura, and reputation as the man to take England to the World Cup.

South Africa also need a win. A series win against England would provide South African rugby with a massive confidence boost before the 2018 Rugby Championships and next year’s Rugby World Cup.

The Springboks must be considered a work-in-progress. There can be no instant fix, and Rassie Erasmus has a huge mountain to climb in the next 18 months. A big win against the No 3 side in the world would make his job just that little bit easier.

Neither team has the luxury of established combinations and units; neither team has the depth of experience and solidity they would want, for markedly different reasons.

The England squad has been decimated by injuries, while the South Africans are a completely new squad selected by a new coach

And that single factor makes the outcome of this series hugely unpredictable!