Mark Keohane: Ellis Park win was most significant in Springbok history
I unashamedly made a case for Allister Coetzee to go and for Rassie Erasmus to be lured back to South Africa to lead the Springboks to the next World Cup.
I was bullish on Sport24 a few months ago in writing that Rassie’s Boks would beat England 3-nil.
England, when I wrote the column, had lost just once in Eddie Jones’s tenure.
Erasmus was still director of rugby and head coach of Munster. I knew there had been unofficial talks to get him back as SA Rugby's director of rugby, but for me he had to come back and have control of the Springboks.
I didn’t need hindsight to dismiss Coetzee’s appointment. I simply didn’t feel he was the right choice. It was an opinion and there were many others who disagreed. Ultimately the coach is judged on results and Coetzee's 11 wins in 25 was his undoing as Bok coach. He was fired because of his lack of results and he failure to sufficiently and aggressively transform the team.
Had Allister won more regularly and picked a more transformed and culturally representative team he would probably still be in the job and Erasmus would still be the darling of Munster.
Fortunately, the man who played 39 Tests for the Springboks, is wearing South African green and in a short space of time he is adding golden touches to what was a pale yellow for much of 2016 and 2017.
Erasmus, in 10 days, did more to change the course of Springbok rugby history than any coach has done since unification in 1992. Erasmus picked a Test captain because he believed in the player’s ability to lead and in his worth as a player. Siya Kolisi, the player, was in better Super Rugby form in 2017 than when he was picked to captain South Africa against England.
Erasmus defended the selection in saying that Kolisi was playing a different role in 2018, playing more to the ball and being asked to adapt his game. He was comfortable the progress was good enough. Erasmus also reminded the naysayers that Kolisi was playing for a Super Rugby team whose players’ confidence, form and results were also not great. He was also comfortable that in the Bok environment Kolisi, like other Stormers selections, would prosper.
Erasmus was emphatic that he had the players, in South Africa, to beat England. He was emphatic that it would also need a sprinkling of older hands from overseas. He identified 10 foreign-based players as part of an extended group. He said the reality was the number would be closer to five than 10. He said he would have no problem picking black players as there were enough performing well in Super Rugby. He said there had to be an expectation to win, especially when playing at home.
He had just two days with the squad that played Wales in the United States but didn’t once make an excuse.
He said it provided an opportunity to test the depth. He believed he had picked a side good enough to win and on 77 minutes, with the Boks leading 20-17, he would have been justified.
When they lost, he said he had made mistakes with his substitutions and first half coach management approach. He felt some players may have felt restricted and not confident enough to play their natural game.
He said it was a lesson when preparing for England. He told the players who started against England to play to their natural strengths and to remind themselves why they got selected. He encouraged individuality within the framework of the match-day plan.
Erasmus was true to every youngster he had raved about. He didn’t speak about the need to develop these kids. He spoke about the necessity to play them. He created transformation history in picking the most ever ethnic black players in a starting XV and match 23. But for injury the front row would historically have been a first ever all-black front row.
A week earlier he had picked 13 new caps against Wales and also selected a side that was representative of all South Africans.
The late defeat against Wales did not deter his enthusiasm or realism. He fronted the media and said the heat was on him to win. But he didn’t back down from his stated belief of who he felt was good enough to beat England.
Erasmus lost seven potential first choice players before the England first Test. Not once did he bemoan it. He spoke of an injury being an uncontrollable. It, for Erasmus, was all about who was next cab off the rank and not about which cab was back at the garage.
Erasmus talked the talk and then walked the walk, in selections, in approach and in result.
There have been highs in Springbok Test history, but there hasn’t been a Test win as significant as that first one against England. It was a win that forever should silence those who refuse to believe that a national South African team can transform and win against the best teams in the world.
I absolutely loved the tweet from respected South African rugby writer Simnikiwe Xabanisa, who said that after 18 years of writing about the Springboks, he finally felt he belonged and that the team belonged. Ellis Park, last Saturday, was an occasion far greater than a rugby match.
I've written rugby for 18 years and in that time I've seen some serious lows and been privileged enough to have written a final in which the Springboks won. But even that pales in significance to reporting on yesterday's game - at long last I feel like I belong.— Simnikiwe Xabanisa (@simxabanisa) June 10, 2018
There will be days more testing and less rewarding than last Saturday, but at Ellis Park (against England) I saw the future of Springbok rugby and it rocked.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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