In a way, Rassie Erasmus’s management group is a bit like Cyril Ramaphosa’s new cabinet isn’t it? There is intense relief that the incumbent is finally gone but, on reflection, surprise at the make-up of his total team. On the political front you understand the need to balance party and country, and the danger of isolating a particular province. Fair enough. On the rugby front you would have thought that getting the Springboks back into winning shape is the only priority.
You also would have expected Rassie to have made it clear that he would brook no interference if he was to be prised from his successful gig at Munster. Jaques Nienaber and Pieter de Villiers look fine but, after that disastrous first attempt with the Boks, Mzwandile Stick’s reappointment as attacking coach came as a shock. Unless he was never given a fair chance first time around. Maybe Rassie knows something that we don’t. May the force be with all of them. That they will need it is clear having watched a couple of Super Rugby games this weekend. It was the same old story early on.
The Blues and the Chiefs scared the hell out of me. Yes, the speed and skill of the players was to be expected but not the level of physical assault. Both sides threw at each other in a way that was exceptional even by today’s standards. It wasn’t just in defence either. Busting through tackles a la gridiron football seems to be a New Zealand option this year that has been added on to guile and deception. Even smaller men like Damian McKenzie exploded into and out of tackles in a way that looked calculated rather than opportunistic. They appear to have a fresh arrow in their national quiver.
Once again, less well known players caught the eye, including Alaimalo, Gatland and Seu. In a way it was almost reassuring to see some basic mistakes made, like the bungled winning Chiefs kick to touch and the crooked line out throw that possibly cost the Blues the game. Errors like that in New Zealand rugby are rare. I bet they won’t be repeated next week by the same offenders.
Still glowing from the magnificent game in Auckland, I was keen to watch the Stormers in Christchurch the next morning. How would our standards compare with the Champions? Has the gap closed? Would Rassie Erasmus feel optimistic or down watching the dish served up? At half time with the Crusaders up 31-7, I bet he regretted his decision to leave Ireland. The Stormers looked to be playing in slow motion compared to the locals and were out-thought and performed in every phase. At times it was embarrassing to watch and you felt that the New Zealand commentators were under instructions not to focus on the gap in both individual and collective ability. It looked like the final score could be over a hundred for the Crusaders. I kid you not.
Then in the second half, thankfully, we saw evidence of some pride and passion left in the Stormers. We also saw some tactical pragmatism as well. The men from the Cape started to take on the Crusaders up front and to dominate in the scrums. Props and other forwards, not the backs, were our danger men and a final score of 45-28, away to the champions, was, on the face of it, not too bad. However we mustn’t fool ourselves. In that first quarter the Stormers were put to the sword. Each and every Crusader played at a speed, both in action and thought, that made us look second rate. When we tried to move the ball we drifted across from side to side and looked impotent until we dropped it or turned it over. Whenever they had the ball they looked dangerous. The difference is the ability to perform skilfully and tactically correctly when playing at extreme pace. That has been clear for years, and yet we don’t seem to have taken steps to remedy the problem.
Does Rassie declare a skills revolution and insist on intense rehabilitation of our players in this regard? Can he, realistically, take such a step? Rumours from Tshwane suggest that this is exactly what John Mitchell is doing with the Bulls. On assuming his job, he drew up a savage schedule and has insisted that everything in training is done at a level of intensity that matches game situations in New Zealand. He also insisted on a fitness upgrade. The tight forwards are clearly benefitting from this already based on some evidence from last week against the Hurricanes.
With the early weekend New Zealand games fresh in the mind, it will be interesting comparing them with the standard of play at Loftus today. The Lions have been a shining light in the last few years and the Bulls look to have started to improve. After today, Erasmus will have a better idea of the challenges ahead. The next Word Cup is fast approaching.
Can Rassie and his management team close the “skills at pace” gap? I doubt it. At least they might be able to narrow it and thus give us a chance to tactically compete using bulk and power. After all, Heyneke Meyer nearly succeeded with this approach in 2015. The tragic thing is that we have fiddled for two years while the clock burned. When will we ever learn?