Bok to the future: Lessons from Man U for Rassie’s lads
Building a successful sports team is seldom done quickly, so don’t judge the Boks purely on results
Alex Ferguson, the most successful modern manager in English football, took four years to build his Manchester United team into a unit capable of winning a trophy.
Appointed in late 1986, United finally won the FA Cup in 1990 under Fergie. It was enough to save him from the sack but not enough to leave fans satisfied because of the club’s failure to win the league title. It wasn’t until 1993 – nearly seven years after Ferguson walked through Old Trafford’s gates – that the club ended a 26-year wait for a league title.
Another dozen league titles followed over the next two decades in an era of dominance that made the club one of the wealthiest and most recognisable on the planet.
The Springboks, and coach Rassie Erasmus in particular, do not have the luxury of seven years, which Ferguson enjoyed, even if the Bok mentor does have an unusually long six-year contract.
The moral of the story is that building a successful sports team is seldom done quickly. There are exceptions, but sustained dominance is achieved only through strong leadership, high-quality coaching and great players.
The Boks’ 2018 fixtures ended in a 20-11 defeat against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday to leave the team with seven losses in 14 matches. On that measurement the Boks have gone backwards this season, but their form and Erasmus’s performance is more nuanced.
Erasmus unearthed some top Test players this season – Aphiwe Dyantyi, S’bu Nkosi and Embrose Papier are three – while older campaigners such as Willie le Roux, Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk looked renewed and world-class.
Four of their seven losses were by five points or fewer. With a bit of luck the Boks could have won 11 of 14 matches. Throw in a dead rubber third Test loss against England (10-25) after the series was won, the Boks could have had an 85% win ratio.
But, and here is the but, four of the Boks’ seven wins were by six points or fewer. With more bad luck they could have won just three of 14 matches this year (21%). If that had happened, this would be a very different column.
It serves to underline two things – the Boks were never massively dominant, with a 34-21 win over Argentina being their biggest win, and they were also never convincingly outplayed. They could have beaten every team they faced (with the exception of Wales, they did) and they could have lost to every team they met more than once, which they did.
There was a neat symmetry to the Boks’ season. Beat England, lost to England, beat Argentina, lost to Argentina, beat Australia, lost to Australia, beat the All Blacks, lost to the All Blacks.
The Boks’ historic 36-34 win over the All Blacks in Wellington remains the highlight of the season and probably the highlight of the decade for SA rugby. That result, and the 60 minutes the Boks produced at Loftus Versfeld in the return match against the world champions, showed Erasmus’s team at its best and most vibrant.
They scored tries, they defended superbly when they needed to and showed that they were a team of multiple dimensions, from quality set pieces, to individual brilliance from the likes of Dyantyi, De Klerk and Malcolm Marx.
This season has not been as successful in terms of results, but there is enough evidence that when the Boks get it right, they’re better than the best. And that’s not something the Boks could be accused of in recent years.
The obvious problem was consistency. The fact that Erasmus used 50 players this year, largely by design to grow his squad, contributed heavily to the inconsistent performances. But even in their inconsistency the Boks were never a floundering mess. There were no 57-0, or 38-3 blowouts. When they were good they were very good and when they were bad they were still reasonable.
That speaks to a team culture and leadership that is focused and healthy. It can only improve with a little more time.
In Siya Kolisi the Boks have a talismanic figure who has strong men around him. Captaining a team is a collective effort and every team from the All Blacks to Leinster has a high quality leadership group. In Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Warren Whiteley, Eben Etzebeth and Elton Jantjies, the Boks have that.
The Boks’ results have been underwhelming this season but there is a rumbling of something big stirring. It feels like a foundation has been laid and that layers will be placed on top next year.
Rugby World Cup 2019 might be a challenge too big and too soon for the Boks to conquer, but if they continue to show more of their good side and less of the mediocre, who would want to meet them in a one-off clash in Japan?