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Ominously, Rassie plans for this World Cup to be a 'springboard' for the Boks

There are big challenges for South African rugby but their return to the top table has been welcome.

ITALY BEATING THE Springboks for the first time ever in 2016 was great for Italian rugby, while Irish supporters enjoyed watching Joe Schmidt’s side thump South Africa 38-3 in 2017.

There were definitely Kiwis who loved seeing the All Blacks demolish the Boks on a 57-0 scoreline in 2017, but the reality was that most in the rugby world were sorry to see the South Africans in such a pitiful state.

japan-rugby-wcup-south-africa Rassie Erasmus has overseen the Springboks' resurgence. Source: Christophe Ena

The decline of the two-time World Cup winners under Allister Coetzee was alarming and sad, leaving them ranked at an all-time low of seventh.

As we know now, Rassie Erasmus has turned the Springboks ship around and they find themselves back in the World Cup final less than two years since the former Munster boss returned.

The South Africans should always be a leading force in the game, even if we base that argument purely on playing numbers.

With 635,288 players [male and female], according to the latest World Rugby numbers, South Africa has by some distance the most registered players in the game.

England have far more total players at 2,112,603 but their registered player figure stands at 355,153.

Behind them come France [258,246], Australia [217,922] and New Zealand [156,074].

By way of comparison, Ireland’s total of registered players is 94,067 by World Rugby’s latest count.

So clearly, South Africans love rugby and their player pool is bigger than in any other nation on the planet. That’s obviously not an indicator of guaranteed success in Test rugby, but it underlines that the Springboks should really always be competitive.

Mercifully for the Boks supporters who suffered through 2016 and 2017, Erasmus has the team back on track and this run to the World Cup final has been capturing the imagination of many new supporters too.

With Siya Kolisi outstanding in his role as the Springboks’ first-ever black captain, an entirely new wave of support has been sweeping along beneath the Boks as they enjoy their resurgence.

Ominously for the rest of the rugby world, Erasmus is planning for this campaign to simply be the start of something even bigger.

“Winning is always the thing you try and do at a World Cup,” said Erasmus in Tokyo. “But I think the thing we would like to grow is the consistency in performance and being one of the teams that chases the number one, two or three world ranking spots, so constantly being number one, two or three in the world.

wales-v-south-africa-2019-rugby-world-cup-semi-final-international-stadium-yokohama South Africa captain Siya Kolisi. Source: Ashley Western

“I think with the amount of players that we have, the amount of support that we have – and I know it’s a big ask because there’s a lot of countries currently doing it – but we’d like to get consistency.

“With everything we have in South Africa, they deserve that. We can use this World Cup as a springboard to get that consistency.”

There is a major challenge for South Africa rugby in the exodus of its players to European clubs due to the weak state of the rand meaning there is little financial incentive to stay and play at home.

However, Erasmus circumnavigated that issue in the short-term by changing the rule prohibiting the selection of overseas-based players as soon as he arrived home to become Springboks head coach and the director of rugby of the South African Rugby Union.

That has seen players like Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe, and Willie le Roux come back into the fold and develop into key men in the rebuild towards this World Cup final.

Again taking a short-term view, several of Erasmus’ players now have a stronger knowledge of Saturday’s final opponents, England, as a result and the Springboks head coach believes the overseas experience has made several of his players better.

“In the Northern Hemisphere, with the conditions they have, guys like Faf, who can’t always play this running, fast, x-factor game, the nine has to control kicking, the pace of the game, getting the forwards in the game, deciding when to kick, when to run, when to speed it up, when to slow it down,” said Erasmus.

“I think that’s something [Northampton Saints scrum-half ] Cobus Reinach has learned there, a lot of guys in that team. Cheslin Kolbe learned that in France. So a lot of those things you don’t always learn in Super Rugby, so that’s some of the knowledge they’ve brought back into our team.”

That said, it is deeply worrying for South African rugby to see players leaving at younger and younger ages.

Powerful tighthead prop Keynan Knox is closing in on completing the second of three years of residency that will qualify him to play for Ireland, having joined Munster straight out of school in December 2017.

Around 20 promising youngers who were playing schoolboy rugby in South Africa in 2019 have already agreed to moves abroad, including the highly-rated out-half Kade Wolhurter, who has joined Montpellier.

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keynan-knox 20-year-old tighthead Keynan Knox is on track to qualify for Ireland. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Indeed, Montpellier have signed three other promising South African players this year, while their academy also includes Irish-qualified back row Albert Dwan.

For Erasmus, seeing Wolhurter and others move to Montpellier straight out of school, or the talented out-half FC du Plessis going to Toulon, is obviously a concern. Interestingly, neither Wolhurter or du Plessis were selected for the South Africa Schoolboy team after agreeing to their moves.

Stemming that flow is a key challenge for Erasmus, who plans to step aside from his role as Springboks head coach and focus on his rugby of directorship before the 2021 Lions tour.

Erasmus has said that his director of rugby role will be hands-on and “definitely not an office job, sitting behind a desk and thinking strategically” but there is no doubt he will have fingers in many pies.

Erasmus is on a six-year contract with the SARU as direct of rugby and his ability to change the rule prohibiting overseas-based players from being selected shows that he will have some power to shape the South African game as he sees fit.

Just last week, he outlined that what he learned within the IRFU’s system during his time as Munster boss has been highly influential on him and he has put those lessons into practice in South Africa by increasing the cohesion between Super Rugby franchises and the Boks, as well as standardising strength and conditioning around the country.

There is also clearly a challenge with illegal substances, with six schoolboys testing positive for anabolic steroids at the 2018 Craven Week, while at the top level, last year’s World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, Aphiwe Dyantyi, has been banned for testing positive for banned substances.

South African rugby, and everyone else in the game, cannot bury its head in the sand on the issue of steroids.

Meanwhile, increasing attendance numbers at Super Rugby, Pro14 and Currie Cup games will be vital for the SARU in the coming years, but that cause will have been aided by the Boks marching into this World Cup final.

As important as anything else, transformation targets to ensure a greater number of black players will also be challenging, but again the current campaign led by Kolisi could be a major boost. 

Erasmus and co. have plenty of hard work ahead of them but with the Boks already back at the top table and the head coach planning to use this as a springboard, the rest of the world had better watch out. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Tokyo

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