GAVIN RICH writes
Does Warren Gatland really reckon the British and Irish Lions will whitewash the Springboks in 2021? I’d love to quiz him on that to establish his motive. For when it comes to what coaches say, not everything is as it appears.
In endorsing Eddie Jones as his successor, Gatland said the South African tour was the easiest of the three that the Lions embark on and that a 3-0 win should be the expected result. It might have been another way of saying “Good luck Eddie, you are the right guy for the job but even if you win 3-0 it isn’t an achievement that matches my feat of managing a series draw with the All Blacks and winning in Australia”.
Gatland is a clever man and will know that he is speaking way too soon. Sure, his Welsh team have won their last two matches against the Boks. But then he will also recall that his team beat England in the 2015 World Cup and England are now a different beast under the coaching of Jones.
Rassie Erasmus can do the same for the Boks. And if he gets all aspects of his broader responsibility as national director of rugby right, we could well see a 3-0 result in 2021, but with a different winner to the one that Gatland envisages. There is enough talent in this country, all it needs is to be directed, coached and selected correctly.
Back in early December, when there was still debate over whether Allister Coetzee would stay or go, there was a betting company offering R30 for your R1 if you were prepared to back the Boks to beat England 3-0 in the June series. I’m sorry I wasn’t brave enough to bet a grand or two, because although you wouldn’t expect a whitewash against the current England team, it is not nearly as unlikely as the 30 to one odds suggest. At least not with Erasmus in charge. The odds shouldn’t be nearly as good for the punter now that Coetzee is officially gone. Forget the fact that Erasmus has yet to be named as the new Bok coach. That doesn’t matter. He is the director of rugby, and as such, he is the man in charge.
Forget too that everything once again appears to be happening so late when it comes to the finalisation of the Bok management. Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were already plotting England’s downfall while they were still coaching at Munster and since their return to South Africa they have been working hard on planning.
Players currently playing overseas who Erasmus feels can benefit the cause were sounded out and approached, and they reached agreement long ago. Since the first weeks of the new year, Erasmus and the coaches likely to work with him have been visiting the various franchises, getting to know the coaches and getting a better feel for the talent that is available. Erasmus has learned a lot from the Irish rugby system, and from Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who is big on building relationships with the coaches who work within the Irish system.
The Erasmus of now is a very different animal to the one of a couple of years ago. There was a night at a SANZAR coaching conference in Sydney a decade ago where Erasmus preferred to stay in his hotel room drinking brandy and coke with fellow South African coaches rather than go out and potentially learn by engaging with the Kiwis and Aussies. That wouldn’t happen now. After working in Ireland, Erasmus has grown immensely, and he is eager to engage with overseas coaches and learn from them. Don’t bet against him bringing someone like former All Black assistant Wayne Smith in as a spot coach from time to time.
But it is more than just the Erasmus credentials that inspire confidence. The Boks are imbued with a potentially lethal pack of forwards, one that in time can dominate all opponents. The old era was finally consigned to history after the last World Cup, and there is a new group of forwards coming through that could boast an aura when the Lions arrive in 2021 not dissimilar to that of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith and Schalk Burger when they were last here in 2009.
In the last test 2017, the Bok big men dominated. They just needed some tactical nous and they would have won that game by a mile. They will have it now. And it is why I reckon a little wager on a resounding Bok series win in June might not be a bad idea.
*Gavin Rich is a veteran rugby writer & analyst for www.supersport.com