Careful, Boks - there are lessons in England’s slide
June could be easily forgotten by September if the wheels come off in the Rugby Championship
What a difference eight months makes. Last November England and their tough Aussie coach Eddie Jones were the darlings of world rugby, the only team seemingly capable of challenging the All Blacks’ hegemony.
They had won 24 out of 25 Tests under Jones and were firmly set as the world’s second best team. Their clash against the All Blacks, scheduled for November 2018, was seen as an unofficial world championship decider before next year’s official World Cup.
But then came the Six Nations and three consecutive defeats and a loss to the Barbarians before taking on the wounded Springboks at home. Suddenly Sweet Chariot England was careering on an axle and prayer.
Before this June, the Springboks by contrast were reeling after another embarrassing Rugby Championship that included a record 57-0 loss against the All Blacks. They were still coming to terms with another defeat against Wales and being smashed 38-3 by Ireland in Dublin. They had hit rock bottom and then found a way to dig even deeper.Coach Allister Coetzee was in the death throes of his spectacularly inept tenure as the Boks slipped down to seventh in the world, but in reality they could’ve been 17th they were so bad.
And then something happened that could only happen in sport – the fortunes of both teams moved in opposite directions and intersected in the current series in South Africa.
Only the most one-eyed Bok supporter could have predicted a series win over Jones’s rampant England as they sat around the Christmas table last December. And yet, here we are with the Boks having wrapped up the series 2-0 under a new coach in Rassie Erasmus.
Just as Jones’s appointment invigorated England after they fell out of their own World Cup at the pool stage in 2015, so Erasmus’s elevation buoyed the Boks.
But there is a lesson in here as well because Jones, a highly decorated coach, hasn’t become useless at his profession in a matter of months, and nor are the Boks close to being world-beaters after one series win.England’s struggles are a collection of many factors, including the dreaded “third year” in the World Cup cycle. Remember the Boks endured a terrible 2006 after two great years under Jake White, only to rise up and win the 2007 World Cup.
England were without about six first choice players (not 25 as Jones suggests) for the current team and those that were selected had inordinately long seasons at club level. Throw in a dozen players that did British & Irish Lions duty in New Zealand last year, instead of enjoying an off-season, and it’s clear something had to give somewhere.This is taking away nothing from the Springboks, who had no right to win this series on paper. Erasmus made bold selection calls and went into the first Test at Ellis Park with a backline that was still in nappies. He watched his team overturn the second largest deficit by a tier one country at Test level and win a spectacular series opener.
And then they did something similar a week later in Bloemfontein to leave South Africans feeling good about the Boks again. Erasmus also went further by naming Siya Kolisi as the first black African to captain the Boks at Test level, which won over many people for the sheer inclusivity of the appointment.
Similarly Erasmus met his transformation targets with ease because instead of taking the usual SA coach approach of picking the bare minimum of black players needed to meet targets, Erasmus exceeded them because he believes in them.
Things couldn’t have gone better for the Boks against England, regardless of what happens at Newlands on Saturday, just as they couldn’t have gone worse for Jones and England.
Erasmus and SA fans need to stay focused because just as we’ve seen with England, what happened in June could be easily forgotten by September if the wheels come off in the Rugby Championship.
That is what happens in sport. Just ask Eddie.