TALKING POINT: URC provides perfect stage for Bok renewal
Duane Vermeulen’s retirement is a reminder of the important renewal process the Springboks need to go through before 2027 but let’s not go there before examining what the performances of England and to a lesser extent New Zealand told us at the most recent World Cup.
The entire Bok starting pack for the final in Paris was made up of players over 30, which means that Vermeulen is not the only player who will need replacing by the time the South Africans get to Australia in quest of what would be a hattrick of RWC titles. But England and the All Blacks showed us by getting as far as they did in the tournament off a low base that success at the event is not dependent on a four year buildup where everything is geared towards one event.
Yes, England were helped by the draw, but they still came within three minutes of making the final. And that after a year which saw a change of coach - Eddie Jones was still in charge this time last year - and the worst possible results that anyone could imagine in the warmup phase, which followed on from a lowly finish in the Six Nations.
New Zealand’s coach Ian Foster was lucky to survive until the World Cup after a four year cycle which saw the All Blacks suffer their first ever loss to Argentina, which was followed up by another loss to the Los Pumas on home soil, and a first ever home series loss to Ireland. There was improvement in the World Cup year but then came an undignified record thrashing from the old foe and eventual winners on the eve of the tournament kick off.
RWC IS ABOUT ON THE DAY PERFORMANCE
World Cups are all about how team’s perform on the day and teams are slave to fate and the raft of 50/50 refereeing calls that are part and parcel of rugby. The Boks are rightfully celebrating now as no team has ever done it as hard as they did to win this most recent World Cup, but they could so easily have been flying home the day after their quarterfinal against France.
No-one would have been asking Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber about the secrets to South African success had that been the case. There would have been acknowledgement of what a fine team France are, and how difficult it was to play them in front of their own passionate fans, but there would still have been recriminations. The Boks aren’t expected to go out at the quarterfinal stage of a World Cup.
More to the point perhaps, there wasn’t really anything that the Boks could have done three years ahead of the event that could have safeguarded against the banana skin they nearly slipped on on a wet day against England in their semifinal. Yes, Handre Pollard’s experience helped his nerves when he kicked the monstrous winning penalty, but the fact remains that a team that raised their game on their big day so nearly beat them. A team that had a coach who had only been in position for a matter of months, not years.
Of course Erasmus and Nienaber know all about winning World Cups off what SA’s first RWC winning coach, the late Kitch Christie, would have called an “ambulance job”. They did it in 2019, just 18 months after they had taken over from Allister Coetzee’s coaching team, and just two and a half years on from a record 57-0 humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in Albany.
It is not as easy to say now that the Rugby Championship is easier to win than a World Cup after what the Boks have just been through, but it has been in many other years, particularly during the Tri-Nations era when Australia were still strong. When the Boks won the 2009 Tri-Nations they played three games against the All Blacks and three against the Wallabies. There were no Romanias or Tongas in among their opponents like there is at a World Cup.
WINNING CREATES THE BEST PLATFORM
Neither is it necessarily true to say that teams that play together throughout the World Cup cycle are best placed to win it. A speech made by Jake White to his players at the beginning of his tenure as Bok coach has assumed legendary status among players who were there to hear him tell them at the start of 2004 that they would be World Cup champions in 2007. Yet there were many players in that room who weren’t anywhere near the Boks by the time they got to France.
As an example, the centre pairing at the start of the White era was De Wet Barry and Marius Joubert. They were both long gone by the time the World Cup arrived. Ditto the flyhalf, Jaco van der Westhuyzen.
Bryan Habana, who was the record try scorer for the Boks at the 2007 World Cup, only made his debut at the end of White’s first year in charge. Frans Steyn, who wore the No 12 in the 2007 World Cup final, as a replacement for the injured Jean de Villiers, who started the White era playing on the wing, would still have been at school at nearby Grey College when White was making that speech. When White spoke those words, his team was preparing for their opening test of the four year cycle against Ireland in Bloemfontein.
While it is true that the core of White’s team was together for that four years, the real platform for the eventual World Cup success was built off winning the Tri-Nations in that first year and then building from there.
BEATING IRELAND SHOULD BE IMMEDIATE PRIORITY
Ironically, Ireland were the first opponents for White’s Boks, and they were also the first on the agenda for Coetzee in 2016, and they will be again at the start of this next four year cycle. The contrast between White’s experience - his team comfortably beat Ireland - and that of Coetzee was marked. Coetzee’s first game in charge saw the Boks lose their first ever home test to Ireland and it set the tone for a disastrous two year tenure.
Erasmus, who will take over the coaching reins after the departure to Leinster of Nienaber, will be mindful of why it went so horribly wrong for Coetzee at the start of 2016 because he is arguably in a similar position now to what Coetzee was given the changing of the guard that will be necessary before the next World Cup.
Fate also conspired against Coetzee. For instance, Handre Pollard was out injured for that entire first season and so was Patrick Lambie after his concussion incident involving CJ Stander at Newlands in the first game. It left rookie scrumhalf Faf de Klerk with a flyhalf partner in Elton Jantjies who was only marginally more experienced than he was.
Fourie du Preez had captained the Boks in the previous World Cup and in conversation with him a few years later, he gave me the impression just a little bit of rubber arm twisting might have convinced him to play on. Even if he hadn’t gone through to the 2019 World Cup, having Du Preez’s experience there to guide the youngsters in those initial stages might have made a massive difference to how the team developed under Coetzee.
Knowing how astute Erasmus is, he won’t make the same mistake, and rather than look ahead to Australia 2027, his immediate priority will be to coach the Boks to a series win over Ireland, who are the one nation the South Africans haven’t beaten lately. Like it did for White, that should provide a good platform for the next challenge after that, which is the Rugby Championship.
LIBBOK PERFECT EXAMPLE OF WHAT URC CAN BRING
To do it, the Bok team that won the World Cup should remain largely intact, with newcomers bled into the team and the system over the years that follow but off a positive, winning base. And Erasmus should have confidence in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, which South Africa is now aligned to instead of Super Rugby, providing the stage for the new stars who will be part of the renewal for 2027 as he has already seen a good example of it - Manie Libbok.
The DHL Stormers flyhalf would not have been anywhere on Erasmus or Nienaber’s radar at the start of the last World Cup cycle. He wasn’t even getting game time at the Sharks when the cycle started. However, Libbok grew immensely as a player in the URC, to the point that he was eventually backed by the Boks. He didn’t play in the final because Pollard was better suited to the wet conditions, but he was one of the success stories of the World Cup winning year and is now regarded as a world class flyhalf. And that after starting the season with just three caps as a replacement.
Another player who excelled at the World Cup, and was my unsung Bok hero, who came out of the Stormers’ successful run in the URC was the veteran utility forward Deon Fourie, while the competition also arguably accelerated the growth of Damian Willemse. Marvin Orie, now playing in France, became a more regular Bok squad member off URC performance.
The success stories are not limited to the Stormers. White has unearthed two proper gems at the Bulls in the form of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie, with the latter sure to be a starter at No 13 in 2027. The two Sharks scrumhalves, Jaden Hendrikse and Grant Williams, propelled themselves to the World Cup off URC performance, and Hendrikse’s brother, Jordan, currently playing for the Emirates Lions, is promising enough to use the URC to join Libbok among the flyhalves in the 2027 World Cup squad.
As the South African URC teams are being reminded during their current tours, the cross-hemisphere competition does provide them with a far greater cross-section of conditions, playing surfaces and opposition playing styles than used to be the case in Super Rugby, so Erasmus has more to measure the players on.
The results being returned by the local teams in the games in the northern hemisphere suggest there are teething problems still, but in another four years those should have been consigned to history, thus giving whoever coaches the Boks in 2027 a vast reservoir of well rounded players to bleed into those that experienced World Cup success in 2023.