Rassie Erasmus curtailed many Springbok careers - now Dave Rennie must do the same
The Springboks and Wallabies were at similar crossroads midway through the last World Cup cycle.
Both powerhouses were languishing with inconsistent results, ending up on the wrong side of an occasional lopsided thumping.
The 2017 series between the Wallabies and Springboks ended with two draws, perhaps the surest indication that the two teams were roughly in the same place.
However, after that year, one made drastic changes and one didn’t.
Two years later the two nations are in drastically different places but the lessons from Erasmus’ takeover will surely be taken and used by Dave Rennie and the Wallabies.
SARU employed a Director of Rugby for the first time ever in Rassie Erasmus in December 2017. Shortly after, Allister Coetzee was sacked as head coach of the Springboks with Erasmus taking over in 2018 as a caretaker.
Rugby Australia continued on with Michael Chieka’s reign despite 2017 being one of the worst seasons on record, which lead to another disastrous run in 2018.
Many of the Springboks squad inherited by Rassie Erasmus have not pulled on the green jersey since.
Lions fullback Andries Coetzee who played nearly every test in 2017 hasn’t played once under Erasmus.
Stormers’ dynamic utility Dillyn Lleyds has made a solitary appearance after being a staple of the 2017 side.
These players hadn’t suffered a sudden drop in domestic form, however. The Lions Super Rugby team that made three straight finals had naturally formed a large portion of the Springbok side.
But South African Rugby had become seduced by the attacking rugby played by the Lions and, by extension, the All Blacks. They were chasing a game that their players couldn’t quite pull off at Test level, leading to some horrific periods of error-strewn rugby.
It was not the hardnosed style of rugby Erasmus had envisioned for the Springboks, and therefore these players would not fit the required standards.
The 57-0 drubbing at Albany on the North Shore by the All Blacks, the 57-16 thumping the year prior in Durban and the 38-3 loss in Dublin highlighted flakey and soft defence not fit for Erasmus’ version of Test rugby.
The door was abruptly shut to many of those responsible. The Springboks narrowed their game towards physicality and defence, simplifying their attack and pushing a ruthless, aggressive defence.
Erasmus capped 19 new Springboks in his first year in charge in 2018, the most since 2002 when 20 new caps were given out.
When the regime changes, so do careers.
For the Wallabies, this isn’t a ‘hand-the-baton’ to a successful assistant type of handover. It is a ‘strip this mess down and rebuild’ type of change.
Michael Cheika’s regime was blindfully loyal to a handful of non-performing stars and project players, while wins dropped to historical lows as the reality disconnect widened.
A generational talent, Kurtley Beale, finished the Cheika-era poetically with the kind of act Cheika’s team became renown for – he picked up a loose pass on his own 22, ran twenty metres across field before throwing a wild looping, sitting duck, cutout pass another twenty metres into the arms of Anthony Watson.
Beale has been in this Wallabies side since 2009, through three World Cups, amassing 92 caps and will go down one of Australia’s best ever talents.
Despite the on-field reputation built in the earlier part of his career, he cannot replicate the athletic feats of his 23-year-old self.
If the Wallabies are seriously looking towards 2023, Beale’s international career already ended with that pass in Oita. He will be 35 years old in France.
As a comparison, All Black Ben Smith was 33 years old last year and became a supporting member in Hansen’s World Cup squad.
Cheika’s regime persisted with players out of position, such as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto at blindside flanker.
As an edge runner, he was found wanting and in defence offered a mismatch for opposition backs. As a carrying option, he was inconsistent and his upright running was a liability.
Many would consider him a lock masquerading as a loose forward. Without the backing of Cheika, his international career could quickly stall.
Another Cheika-project pushed through early is the energetic lock Izack Rodda.
A big man with a big heart, Rodda’s hands let him down way too much at the international level with costly stone-cold drops a regular occurrence.
Rodda’s handling skills are lacking and doubts exist whether they meet the standard required by Rennie.
If Michael Hooper isn’t Dave Rennie’s captain where does that leave him? As captain, he would be guaranteed to start. Without the armband, however, his guarantee is revoked.
Liam Wright’s defensive numbers in Super Rugby this year are directly comparable to Michael Hooper’s.
If Wright is deemed a better lineout option, and Rennie has no desire to use a 7 as an edge-running wing, there is every chance Hooper is marginalised towards a bench role or splitting time in the 7 jersey with an up-and-comer like Wright.
A leader with endless heart for the cause, Hooper brings intangibles. There are few as tough as the New South Welshmen, but it’s undeniable there has been a lack of wins with Hooper at openside and as captain. In search of a winning formula, every option has to be tried if the Wallabies are committed to actually winning.
If Rennie wants a different captain, Hooper’s grounding isn’t so solid.
There are many players on the periphery that could service just as well as the incumbents – Matt Phillip, Jack Dempsey, Tom Banks, Tom Cusack, Lachlan McCaffrey, that weren’t given anywhere near the chance of others who didn’t perform.
More talent will continue to filter through from the successful Australian under-20 side that made the World Championship final in 2019, and the Australian schoolboy side that toppled their New Zealand counterparts.
If a losing culture is to be crushed and buried, there is no room for fairytale swansongs if the team is truly greater than the individual. Those heading to the Premiership for a short-term stint when rugby returns should probably look at getting a full ride.
The Wallabies wallowed under Cheika’s eye for so long that the impending culling may take some by surprise – but it will be a refreshing and much-needed jolt to Wallabies rugby when it happens.
Even with the same squad, Rennie could improve the results by taking Erasmus’ approach and simplifying things to avoid brain dead errors and self-driven capitulations.
By cleaning house at the same time, he has every chance to right the ship within 12-18 months.
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