Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber continue to think outside the box as era comes to a close
The ‘war council’ moment during the recent World Cup semi-final between England and South Africa summed up the madness as well as the brilliance of the Springboks coaching duo.
At that stage, England were in control on the field and on the scoreboard. Up in the coaching box, however, South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was becoming increasingly animated as his team continued to slide towards a shock defeat.
Assistant coaches were ordered to leave their seats and abandon their laptops for an impromptu huddle around the Bok boss. Erasmus barked orders and gesticulated wildly, while head coach Jacques Nienaber and his assistants listened intently.
England’s players were on top, and England’s coaches were on top. Erasmus’s last-ditch attempts to rally the troops appeared to highlight South Africa’s desperation. But as desperate as it looked, it was absolutely necessary.
The Bok coaches came together to solve a problem, and from there, the players executed a revised plan that netted South Africa a 16-15 victory.
Interventions by the Springboks coaching duo
Credit must go to the players – particularly to Ox Nché for his scrummaging performance in the second stanza, and to Handré Pollard for his 78th minute penalty. And yet, you have to wonder whether the Boks would be in the final mix this week if the coaches hadn’t gone to such extreme lengths against England.
Erasmus has developed a reputation for wild and outlandish coaching gambits. Since taking the reins as Bok head coach, Nienaber has become known as the team’s mad scientist. They’re forever looking for new ways to improve their team, for loopholes in the laws, and for weaknesses in opposition line-ups.
Few of these innovations and strategies have been accepted or well-received by the wider rugby community, at least not at first. In time, and particularly in the wake of a big victory or after a successful campaign, the method behind the madness has become clear.
Erasmus and Nienaber have been at their mad, brilliant best at this World Cup. Many of the selections and strategies that were initially derided and ridiculed have earned them a series of important wins, and ultimately a place in the final.
Consider where this journey began, at the unveiling of the World Cup squad in early August. Fans and experts – a few former Bok captains and coaches among them – were left scratching their heads after it was confirmed that four scrum-halves would be travelling to France, and just two specialist hookers. More than a few eyebrows were raised by the selection of one specialist fly-half.
Erasmus and Nienaber had done their homework, though. They knew that they would sustain a couple of serious injuries along the way, and that they would have the chance to recall key players such as Pollard and Lukhnayo Am at some stage of the campaign.
The selection of Deon Fourie as a third hooker option was a gamble, yet a calculated one, given that the veteran loose forward had spent his formative years in the front row at the Stormers.
Behind the scenes, the coaches worked hard to up-skill Marco van Staden as yet another hooking option. That project paid off after van Staden was asked to pack down in the front row against Romania and Tonga at the World Cup.
Remember the reaction when the Bok team to play Romania was announced? Social media exploded after all four scrum-halves were included in the matchday squad, with Cobus Reinach and Jaden Hendrikse covering the No 9 position, Grant Williams starting on the right wing, and Faf de Klerk providing fly-half cover from the bench.
Nienaber explained the need to rotate the squad during the pool stages with the play-offs in mind. Now that the final is upon us, and the Boks and All Blacks’ game minutes are being analysed to determine which of the teams is fresher, it’s clear how necessary that break was for Manie Libbok, Cheslin Kolbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse and others.
Boks bench always under the microscope
Then there’s the matter of the Bomb Squad. The make-up of the Bok bench has been spoken about at length over the past few months.
Nienaber unleashed a 7-1 bench against the All Blacks at Twickenham this past August, and the Boks went on to claim a record 35-7 victory. In the aftermath, some questioned the fairness of the strategy. Former Scotland coach Matt Williams suggested that the selections, while completely legal, were not “morally correct”.
The Boks revisited the 7-1 split ahead of their third pool clash against Ireland. Andy Farrell’s side met the challenge of the Boks before and half-time, and emerged with a 13-8 victory.
Afterwards, the Springboks coaching duo of Nienaber and Erasmus confirmed that the 7-1 strategy would be shelved, and most assumed that the Boks would adopt a more conservative and predictable approach in the play-offs, in terms of their selections and strategy.
There was nothing conservative about the coaches’ management of the squad during the pool stages, though. When hooker Malcolm Marx broke down with an injury after the first game against Scotland, they recalled Pollard instead of a third specialist hooker. It was another calculated gamble.
They could press their luck in the front row, with Bongi Mbonambi doing the bulk of the work for the remainder of the campaign, and Fourie and van Staden filling in where necessary.
Following the narrow loss to Ireland – where they missed several kicks at goal – it became clear that they needed a reliable kicker in the mix as soon as possible. The decision to recall Pollard was certainly justified when the veteran slotted match-winning penalties against France in the quarter-finals, and against England in the semis.
More calculated gambles were taken across those two play-offs. The Boks were largely outplayed by France, but never doubted their ability to dominate the scrum – and milk a penalty. When Damian Willemse caught a long kick by France towards the end of the first half, he immediately called for a mark and then put his fists together to signify a scrum.
With respect, it’s not as if the Boks were competing against the likes of Australia and Fiji. France are among the fiercest scrummagers on the planet, yet the Boks were mad enough to opt for a scrum deep in their own territory. The move paid off, as they won a penalty. Unfortunately for South Africa, Libbok failed to find touch with the ensuing kick.
The Boks continued in this vein in the semi-final. Few coaches would make a series of early changes in such a big game, given that it tends to promote a message of panic. With the campaign on the line, Erasmus and Nienaber made a series of brutal yet necessary substitutions.
Social media went into meltdown after Libbok – the spearhead of South African rugby’s attacking revolution and one of the stars of this World Cup campaign – was hooked in the 31st minute. As the rain teemed down at the Stade de France, and England began to tighten their grip on the contest, the coaches could wait no longer to deploy Pollard.
Given what had transpired the previous week against France, that substitution was largely expected, albeit in the second half. What wasn’t expected was the removal of Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen between the 46th and 51st minute of the game.
Bold calls by Springboks coaching duo
Everyone knows that experience wins big World Cup matches, and the decision to hook three of the team’s leaders at the same time appeared, at least on the face of it, counterproductive.
Later, the coaches explained that some of the Boks’ key players were showing signs of fatigue, and needed to make way for fresher players with the ability to effect a turnaround. These substitutions were justified when the new men – RG Snyman, Kwagga Smith and Fourie – powered a comeback.
It would be a stretch to suggest that everything has gone according to plan for the Boks at this World Cup. They weren’t at their best against France and England, and rarely enjoyed the opportunity to play to their strengths.
That said, the tenacity and composure of the Bok players, as well as the bold decision-making and problem-solving ability of the coaches, must be applauded.
Right now, the All Blacks coaching trio of Ian Foster, Joe Schmidt and Jason Ryan will be trying to anticipate a surprise or two ahead of the showdown with the Boks this weekend.
It’s not a matter of whether that surprise is coming, it’s a matter of when and what form it might take. Will we seen another midfield maul, akin to the ploy that earned them a crucial penalty in the 2019 World Cup final? A ten-man lineout, a tap-penalty move, or another mark and scrum call deep in the South African 22?
You can bet your bottom dollar, rand or euro that they will have something in their playbook for just such an occasion. It remains to be seen whether that particular play earns them another title, but the Springboks coaching duo as well as the players won’t die wondering.