The rejuvenation of a traditional power in World Rugby, two-time World Cup champions South Africa, is well underway after a host of ground-breaking changes were made by SARU.
Rassie Erasmus is a man with a vision, prepared to advocate for bold changes in order to right the path of the Springboks and save them from their plight. The early changes have been refreshing, given how rugby is often held back by amateurism and lack of long-term strategic sight.
South African Rugby have realised they cannot win the financial war, so they have changed tact, working with the tide instead of against it and perhaps in the process have set a framework for a stronger playing base in the future.
Overseas clubs will be the ones to pay top dollar to their top players, while they will redirect those high salaries to secure a wider, more youthful playing base. Admirably, they won’t prevent those players that are taking the money from representing the Springboks either, officially scrapping the ‘money or country’ eligibility rules.
There might be fears that this would accelerate a player exodus however this is impractical thought. There are only so many foreign-player quotas around the world, and typically clubs paying for high-profile stars need the resume to match the paycheck. The natural supply and demand of the international player market will determine how many will go, not just how many may want to go.
If SARU can lock in the younger talent for longer and cheaper they will strengthen their system, while the national side will still benefit from the availability of superstars earning offshore.
The global leagues that are run by private owners, the English Premiership and France’s Top 14, conceivably will only continue to grow their product value or their wallets funding it. Being the first major Southern Hemisphere tier one union to concede defeat on the financial front is actually going to position South Africa in a better place for the next 10 years.
While Rugby Australia is exhausting its already-stressed budget to retain the Hooper’s, Pocock’s and Folau’s, South Africa will be working on the foundations of the next generation while overseas billionaires fit the bill for the stars. This is a Moneyball play – pay only what they are worth or less and let others ‘without a business model’ overpay.
Not lost on Erasmus is also the fact that European Rugby is closer to test match quality, meaning he has a direct finger on the pulse on their ability to perform for the Springboks if selected.
The other global club competitions run by national Unions, Super Rugby and Pro 14, have struggled with parity and are stuck protecting national interests over ensuring the overall product is growing in value, experiencing dwindling crowds and competitive imbalance. They have tried expansion as a means to add value, but like ‘quantitative easing’ you end up devaluing the existing currency. The sugar-hit wears off quickly and that tactic becomes less effective over time, destroying value not adding it in the long run.
This conflict will continue to play out with Union-run leagues, conspiring to harm the growth of them. If the private leagues continue to grow, so will the offers to top international talent. It’s a smart move now to position the Springboks to stay ahead of the curve and deal with it before the others do.
There are other unique issues that South African Rugby has to deal with that no other nation does – namely transformation. It appears that Erasmus has his eye on improving the balance of not only the player base but also the coaching base. This looks to be the greatest challenge, as it requires enforcement at the grassroots level to ensure the talent pool feeding the pro level is equally proportioned.
Although he is moving into the Director of Rugby role after this season, hopefully, the blueprint for Springbok rugby will be embedded by the time he finds his successor. Already we have seen a much-improved Bok side, very capable of winning a third World Cup in Japan, but they still need to make leaps in 2019 with little time at hand.
The win over the All Blacks in Wellington was a watershed moment, however, this wasn’t the most impressive showing. Although they rightfully won the match, it felt like a great escape and the All Blacks equally ‘lost’ it in a back-and-forth affair full of twists and turns.
The first 60-minutes of the second test in Pretoria was as dominate display as there has been over the All Blacks in the last 10 years. It felt as if they were well and truly defeated, having no control and unable to deal with the Springbok onslaught.
What was 6-all at halftime quickly became 30-13 before the visitors rose from the dead to snatch an all-time great comeback win. Lost in the post-mortem of that match was how powerless the All Blacks were in dealing with the Boks in the first three quarters.
Tactically, the Springboks figured out how their kicking game could win field position and find the grass against the All Blacks two-fullback system, using the likes of Willie Le Roux and others in the wider channels, instead of just and Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard.
Spreading the ball towards the edge forces one of the fullbacks to come up in anticipation of taking the last man, creating the window required to plug the corners. Le Roux is only two-or-three men in from the edge and possesses a lethal passing game, so every time he has the ball Barrett or Smith has to rush up, as you cannot give Aphiwe Dyantyi or Cheslin Kolbe a head start.
They also used the set-piece, or a phase or two after, to kick for territory when Barrett defends in the front line leaving Smith as the only man deep.
The All Blacks never got into the game in the first half as the Springboks controlled 75% of the territory and the few attacking opportunities they did get were spoiled by turnovers.
The Springboks broke the wall early and often in the second half, getting ahead 23-6 before trading tries to lead 30-13 with a quarter to go. Had Erasmus not emptied the bench and lost key leaders on the field, the Springboks likely close that game out and a different narrative is written.
Under Erasmus, the Springboks can beat the All Blacks but they can just as likely lose to any other of the top five nations. To win the World Cup you need to beat three tier-one countries on the trot, and South Africa haven’t shown the consistency required to do so yet.
They are capable of doing so, but they must reach that level within the next 6-months. It does help that their Super Rugby sides are playing a noticeably different style of rugby in 2019, something that Erasmus himself stated he is enjoying watching.
“If you don’t start accepting that mindset, and how important are penalties, discipline, kicking game, defence — and by all means attack — but if all of a sudden you want to instill that at Test match level it’s too late. The players understand that,” Erasmus explained at his press conference.
“World Cups have never been won by eight tries.
“It’s always been high-pressure games and the end of the game it’s a penalty here or a drop goal there.
“This game isn’t all about X-factor, all about a brilliant moment; it’s almost like the [South African Super Rugby] teams are trying tactically to squeeze results out of each other, and to be honest I’m enjoying that.”
Rassie has a plan on and off the field to save Springbok rugby and the wheels are in motion. It might not bring the ultimate result in 2019, but down the line, South African rugby will be in a better place by 2023 after taking proactive and bold measures to return to power today.
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