Why are the Springboks such a sputtering jalopy on the road?
Last Saturday’s rugby equivalent of a car crash doused the Erasmus era in a cascade of cold reality
It was inevitable that the tenure of Rassie Erasmus as Springbok coach would run into a huge pothole at some stage, although even he must have expected it to be against the All Blacks and not against Argentina.
The Boks have not been serious contenders to the All Blacks for years, so Erasmus’s real measure could only be gauged against the likes of Argentina and Australia.
Last Saturday’s rugby equivalent of a car crash in the first half, that saw the Boks trail 27-7 at halftime before losing 32-19 to the Pumas in Mendoza, doused the Erasmus era in a cascade of cold reality.
Argentina are a much better team under coach Mario Ledesma, who has basically taken the Jaguares from Super Rugby and transplanted them into the international arena as the Pumas.Erasmus warned in June before his team had played a match that losing was always going to be part of the equation. They were starting from a low base and the objectives of the season were to grow depth and see which players would stay afloat.
Beating England 2-1 in a home series, which they could just as easily have lost given two massive deficits the Boks gave up in the early stages of the first and second Tests, glossed over some deficiencies.
Playing at home was a huge factor in being able to stay in those contests. In Mendoza last weekend, there was no way back from 20 points down at halftime.
The most glaring question is how the Boks could be so good from one half to the next? In Durban, when the Boks beat Argentina 34-21, they “won” the second half 21-7 and physically bullied the Pumas.
A week later and the reverse was true. Coaches always talk about the tiny margins and being a few percent off your game can translate to big margins on the field. That was certainly true last weekend.
Erasmus has many issues to resolve, but they are not new. Lineouts have been sloppy, the loose trio looks unbalanced, the halfbacks are inconsistent, his centres are raw, and the back three is thin after injuries to Sbu Nkosi and Makzole Mapimpi.
The biggest challenge and conundrum facing Erasmus, though, is SA’s inability to function away from home. Performances diminish alarmingly the minute players are outside of their comfort zone.SA have never been the best of tourists and there are any number of calculated guesses we could make as to why – from an insular upbringing to real issues with travel fatigue. What we don’t have are answers to rectify their problems.
Since the 2015 World Cup the Boks have won only three of 15 matches away – 20% – which is unacceptable for a team aiming to be among the top three in the world rankings.
In the same period the All Blacks have won 13 of 15 away (86%), Ireland have won 10 of 17 (58%), England 11 of 16 (69%) and even Wales has six wins from 16 away games in that time. These are all better records than the Boks. Australia too have won seven from 17 (41%) on the road and they’re in a similarly desperate position as the Boks.
Between 2004-2011, when the Boks won a World Cup and two Tri Nations titles, and were the number one ranked team in 2007 and 2009, they won 32 of 58 away games (55%). That is the bare minimum needed to be considered a very good team.
Erasmus now faces the most critical time of his coaching career. Defeat in Argentina has constricted any breathing room he had left for the remainder of the season.
He has pleaded for patience but if the Boks suffer two more defeats, to the Wallabies in Brisbane and the All Blacks in Wellington, his reputation will be shredded.
The Boks simply have to win in Brisbane to show that the Pumas result, and more importantly the performance, was an anomaly.
No one who seriously watches rugby expects the Boks to beat the All Blacks away, but beating the Wallabies is not an unreasonable expectation. To do that, the coach, his staff and the players have to find a way to extract home ground performances on foreign fields.
Rugby is a game of winning the battle for inches on the field, but in the case of the Boks, it seems to be about winning the war for the inches between the ears when they’re on the road, that is most vital.