Neither England nor Boks can afford to drop Saturday’s ball
Both teams’ slide has brought them to a point where another backwards step may spell disaster
For the longest time rugby Tests in June have been devoid of zest and vitality. How can they have zeal if overprotective northern hemisphere club owners play hardball and if the Home Unions, France and Italy fail to prioritise the journey south for their already weary travellers?
South Africa’s three-Test series against England that kicks off at Ellis Park on Saturday, however, has reason to be exonerated from that morass.
Ironically, both teams’ slide in the global scheme of things has brought them to a point where another backwards step may spell disaster. It means the series is viewed with heightened interest as it marks a significant juncture in both teams’ preparations for next year’s Rugby World Cup.The course they set during this series may yet determine the degree of success they achieve at next year’s showpiece event in Japan. England under Eddie Jones have had their ways and methods challenged in their most recent matches, and new Bok coach Rassie Erasmus may also have to look inward should the series be lost.
SA Rugby has nailed its colours to his mast by offering him an unprecedented six-year deal but the wily coach knows the South African public neither has the appetite nor the patience for long-term building projects. Yet he has to start somewhere and foundations need to be laid.
Erasmus has very distinct transformation objectives and he seemed to confront that task with the requisite vigour in his first two Tests in charge. Sustaining it, though, especially if his side continues to wobble, will be a true test.
It is in this series that Erasmus will have to start bedding down selections and systems that will carry the team through to the big tournament. He has 16 months to go and needs to hit the deck running. Some of the Springboks’ sternest opposition at the World Cup have coaches (New Zealand’s Steve Hansen, Australia’s Michael Cheika, Ireland’s Joe Schmidt and Wales’s Warren Gatland) who would have been in their jobs for much longer than the widely practised four-year window.Losing to England would be quite a slap-down considering the state in which the Red Roses find themselves.
The honeymoon period under Eddie Jones, which saw them win 18 Tests in a row (17 on Jones’s watch) following the last World Cup, is well and truly over. Their back-to-back success in the Six Nations is now almost forgotten as they slumped to last place in the latest edition.
They arrived in South Africa having lost consecutive matches against Scotland, France and Ireland in the Six Nations, before slumping to a humiliating defeat in which they conceded more than 60 points to the Barbarians in their most recent outing.
Erasmus doesn’t believe that is a true reflection of English rugby. He believes Jones experimented with some of his selections in the Six Nations, which inevitably carries consequences.
“Eddie is busy building a squad for the World Cup. He’s trying a few things. While you are doing that you are going to lose some matches. If you lose three in a row the pressure starts building. Then you have to rethink your plan. Knowing him he’ll have a plan to fix that. I wasn’t surprised by their results. Previously they had ones that went their way.”
Erasmus will be desperate avoid the same being said about him at the conclusion of this series.