Given that Argentina and South Africa are two of our opponents in the autumn internationals, last week’s match between them in Durban and this evening’s return fixture in Mendoza are of more than usual interest. The Springboks won last week, eventually by a comfortable margin, 34-21, and scoring six tries, all by backs, to the Pumas’ three. Despite their defeat the Argentines looked a lot better, and better organised, than when Gregor Townsend’s young team ran riot against them in the summer; it would be no great surprise if they reverse last week’s result tonight.
Nevertheless there’s more interest perhaps in the South African performance, partly because South African rugby has been in difficulties, partly because results over recent years have been generally poor, but principally because, with Rassie Erasmus as coach – and South African director of rugby – things may be looking up.
We have become so accustomed to the All Blacks’ supremacy that some, especially younger followers of the game, may suppose it’s “aye been”. Not so, of course. Before the other rugby-playing countries joined, somewhat reluctantly in the sporting boycott during the last decades of the apartheid regime, the Springboks were at least the equal of the All Blacks, and quite often stronger than them. The 1951-52 Springboks were probably the finest team to tour Britain, Ireland and France in the last 50 years of amateur rugby. The South African game was always based on power and skill up front, but that side had some very good backs too.
A leading South African journalist, Rob Houwing, writes that “a return to some sort of golden age is still a long way off”. Fair enough, but that the possibility is even being aired is testament to the impression that Erasmus has made in a few months. He has done two necessary things.
First, he has accepted that South Africa cannot afford to ignore players who are playing outside South Africa – any more than we can ignore those playing in England or France. So he welcomed some back, notably Willie Le Roux from Wasps, Faf De Klerk from Sale Sharks and Duane Vermeulen from Toulon. All made huge contributions to their two victories over England in June.
Second, more than any previous South African coach, he has happily, even eagerly, accepted the reality of the requirement to field a racially-balanced team. Some of his predecessors seemed to believe that picking a couple of black (or in South African terms “coloured”) wings and one black prop was enough to show willing. Erasmus has gone further. First, he made the brilliant flanker Siya Kolisi South Africa’s first black captain. The symbolism of this is obvious. When the Lions did tour South Africa in the apartheid years, they found the blacks supporting them against their white Springbok masters. Now, with a black captain, this Springbok represents the whole nation as never before, and Kolisi is evidently a natural leader, one who is happily accepted and admired by his team-mates.
If Le Roux is as clever a full-back as you will find anywhere, and Faf de Klerk, outstanding against England, is surely one of the three or four best scrum-halves in the game today, Erasmus has given opportunities to young and exciting outside backs: S’bu Nikosi, Makazole Mapimpi, Lukbanyo Am, and, perhaps best of all Apiwe Dyantyi.
All are still a bit naive sometimes in their defensive positioning, too easily drawn from the line, but they are eager and natural try-scorers. The days when the characteristic South African stand-off was someone like Morne Steyn who would lie deep in the pocket and boot the ball skyscraper-high or three-quarters of the length of the field are, for the time being anyway, over. Erasmus’s South Africa are eager to run the ball from anywhere – not that they have abandoned the old commitment to forward power too – in Malcolm Marx they have the world’s best hooker. It’s just that the Springboks now play a 15-man game.
Best of all, Erasmus has found a set of players who are distinguished by their resolution. In both the first two England Tests this summer, South Africa made dreadful starts, naivety in defence being exposed, and fell three scores behind before the match was a quarter old. They didn’t panic. They didn’t try to close the game up. On the contrary they played with intelligence, imagination and flair; it was a delight to watch them.
They may lose in Mendoza tonight. They may falter in a northern November, but I guess that, come the World Cup, they are going to be there with a chance of winning the William Webb Ellis trophy for the third time. Their young players will learn a lot this autumn, and, in Rassie Erasmus, they have a coach who himself learned a lot in his year with Munster.
Like Gregor Townsend he belongs to the up-and- coming generation of coaches – a generation in rugby terms younger than that represented by Steve Hansen, Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones.