A glance at the Super Rugby fixture list for next year might bring some understanding to why Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus is in a rush to start planning ahead.
The Boks are busy with their trophy tour and there is no question that it is the right thing to do – both from a players’ perspective to bask in the adulation of the fans after a job well done, while for supporters who weren’t able to get to Japan it is their chance to get something back for all the emotion that has been expended over the past few weeks.
But with the goal of getting South African rugby right at Super Rugby level in mind, and the next Super Rugby season due to start before the end of January next year, Erasmus will know he has no time to waste. Wearing his twin caps at the moment of Bok head coach and director of rugby, he would like to get down to the business of planning ahead, something he spoke about at the post-match press conference following the World Cup final, as soon as it is possible to do so.
He knows there is much to do if the Boks are to attain the consistency he spoke about as his aim in Yokohama last Saturday night. While he spoke of the British and Irish Lions tour in 2021 as the larger goal, there is also the small matter of aiming to be the first Bok team to retain the Rugby Championship trophy (formerly Tri-Nations).
There were many lessons learned by various coaches at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and one of the most honest post-campaign assessments came from distraught Ireland coach Joe Schmidt the night that his team was blown out in the quarterfinal stage by the All Blacks.
“Maybe I got it wrong after we beat the All Blacks in Dublin last year by switching focus to the World Cup and not concentrating on the smaller battles that awaited us in the interim,” said Schmidt.
In other words, instead of going all out for another Six Nations title, as his team had in the previous years of the four year World Cup cycle, he experimented with the World Cup in mind. Losing caused his team to lose momentum, and they were never able to regain it again. Erasmus, if you pay attention to what he says, knows it is winning the many smaller battles that await the Boks in the next four years that will give his team the best chance of being in the frame to become the second team in history to retain the Webb Ellis trophy in France in 2023.
But even though Erasmus is right when he points to the talent coming through and the playing resources available in South Africa, a lot of that is easier said than done.
Erasmus tends towards the holistic approach, as he should, and he is also clever enough to know that he faces some interesting challenges, not the least of them the task of balancing the spread between home based players and overseas based players going forward.
THOUGHT NEEDS TO BE APPLIED TO WHICH OVERSEAS BASED PLAYERS CONTINUE
On the face of it there doesn’t appear to be much of an obstacle to Erasmus if he wants to keep the winning World Cup recipe. Many of the players who were stalwarts in this campaign, such as the now injured Handre Pollard and Lood de Jager, will be continuing their careers overseas after this. So will Eben Etzebeth, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende and others.
But unlike New Zealand and some other countries, there is no bar on the number of overseas based players that Erasmus can use. So what’s the problem? The problem is that in a World Cup year, when it is possible to have the squad in camp for as many as 20 weeks, the fact that the players are flung far and wide across the planet when it comes to where they play their club rugby doesn’t matter so much.
Indeed, as Erasmus pointed out a few times during the World Cup, the high degree of professionalism in northern hemisphere rugby actually helped him by delivering a far more finished product at scrumhalf in Faf de Klerk than was the case before De Klerk decided to play in England.
Yet in the non-World Cup years, when the players are available for much shorter periods because of the international window agreements, it won’t be easy for Erasmus to sustain the team culture and vibe that was so intrinsic to this World Cup success. With players spread all over the place, it is also challenging to ensure that players are properly and uniformly conditioned.
HAVING PLAYERS BASED ALL OVER CAN BE DYSFUNCTIONAL
One of the aims behind Erasmus’ new contracting model that was announced earlier in the year was indirectly to increase his control of overseas based players by being much harder on dual commitment. If a player is not released by his club to play for the Boks when he should be, that players’ Bok future will be in jeopardy.
That won’t though prevent the dysfunction that sometimes results when a large body of overseas -based players joins a squad that has already been training together in South Africa just a few days ahead of a major test match.
Having players in camp for as long as he did in this World Cup year probably contributed handsomely to what makes Erasmus unique among South Africa’s three World Cup winning coaches. Unlike Kitch Christie, who had a successful Transvaal team to draw on, and Jake White, who had two Super Rugby finalists to draw on when he selected his 2007 World Cup winning squad, Erasmus did not have the nucleus of a strong and successful provincial entity to draw on.
Indeed, he was also at a disadvantage to his direct World Cup final opponent Eddie Jones, not that it mattered in the end, in the sense that England draw a lot from the successful Saracens model and the spine of the England team is made up of largely Saracens players.
Sometimes provincial/franchise success can obscure things. Perhaps that happened to the All Blacks at this World Cup. Richie Mo’unga was instrumental in the Crusaders’ Super Rugby success, but was he the right fit at No 10 for the All Blacks ahead of Beauden Barrett. Those who saw that move as a success are focusing on how good Barrett was at No 15 and neglecting the possibility that it could have turned out very differently for the All Blacks had Barrett played pivot.
ERASMUS KNOWS BENEFITS OF STRONG SUPER RUGBY FRANCHISES
That example and perhaps a few others that readily spring to mind notwithstanding, however, Erasmus is acutely aware of the role that strong and successful Super Rugby franchises can play in ensuring that there is sustained success at international level.
The last time the British and Irish Lions visited there was a strong Bulls influence in the Bok win, and it was no coincidence that South Africa’s most successful non-World Cup year of the unification era, 2009, coincided with the season where the Bulls gave the Chiefs 60 points in a Super Rugby final. That was also the year remember where the Boks, under the coaching of Peter de Villiers, whitewashed the All Blacks 3-0 on their way to winning the Tri-Nations.
Of course the biggest stumbling block to that kind of multiple success, meaning a flow from franchise through to national, being repeated is an obvious one – money. The weakness of the South African currency makes it hard to retain players in the country, and that in turn makes it hard for the franchise coaches to implement any kind of long-term forward planning.
HE HAS HIS PLANS IN PLACE
That said, however, Erasmus has plans and is confident that his contracting system will have the opposite of the negative impact that some of the naysayers are predicting for franchise rugby. There’s a definite coaching problem at that level of South African rugby, with all four Super Rugby coaches for 2019 lacking proper experience at that level. But they can expect more help from Erasmus going forward once he’s delegated some of his previous responsibilities through the appointment of a Springbok head coach, who is likely to be his long time right hand man Jacques Nienaber.
What isn’t debatable is that there is a lot of raw talent coming through. Think Cobus Wiese, the prodigiously strong and talented Western Province lock-cum-flank, think his second row partner JD Schickerling (if he can stay uninjured), think Herschel Jantjies, think Damian Willemse, think JJ van der Mescht and Phepsi Buthelezi, plus Craig Richardson, Curwin Bosch and others at the Sharks. Think Marvin Orie, Wandesile Simelane and Hacjivah Dyamani, to name just a few, at the Lions.
Jantjies bolted out of nowhere in 2019 and there will be players who will do so in the next four years. Yes, overseas clubs are taking some of the top schoolboy players, but there’s more than enough young talent in this country.
What is important is that Erasmus has the kernel of the team that won the World Cup available to him heading into the next four year cycle and most of those players are young enough to be part of it in 2023 again. He’s just going to have to find the right balance between overseas based and home based. An imbalance could undermine his plans. Finding the right balance won’t be easy. It will be Erasmus’ biggest challenge going forward. – © supersport.com