Cape Town - Rassie Erasmus should have ended his first southern hemisphere season in charge of the Springboks well satisfied with the progress made, but at the same time he should also be kicking himself, SuperSport.com reports.
What Erasmus should be pleased about is the improvement in performance and all-round competitiveness that has been evidenced from the Boks under his watch. The progress made was clear for all to see in the thrilling finale to the Rugby Championship season at Loftus Versfeld at the weekend. The Boks did everything right, well almost everything, except win.
Seldom in recent times have the All Blacks been under the cosh like they were for most of the game in Pretoria. Unlike in Wellington three weeks earlier, when the Boks pulled off an epic win, it was the South Africans who dominated possession and who won the territory battle. It was the All Blacks who had to rely on a strong defensive effort to hang in.
Yes, that is correct, they hung in. You don't read that often when the reference is to the All Blacks. At the same time, the completion of the Bok evolution to a high line rush defence system was also confirmed, and the Boks should have left Loftus feeling confident that they have now reached a point where they can say the two 50-point nightmares have been consigned to almost forgotten history.
The Boks always had less to lose from this game. In the sense that they had already traversed an important frontier when they effectively got the New Zealand monkey off their backs in Wellington, it only really needed the Boks to be competitive in Pretoria for the general perception of improvement, and the all-round confidence, to be retained.
They were more than just competitive. On a day where perhaps too many people who were expecting New Zealand to wreak humiliating revenge for Wellington overlooked the extra jolt of energy the Boks get on the Highveld, they would have surprised many with the way they made the All Blacks look like mere mortals.
Well, at least until those final frenetic minutes when the Kiwis turned everything on its head and ended up in the space of six minutes ensuring that they ended up gaining hugely from the experience of being tested and coming through the examination. Coming from behind like they did, winning when all seemed lost, would have been worth more to them in terms of confidence and growth than had they pitched up at Loftus and scored a regulation victory.
For 74 minutes it looked like New Zealanders might be waking up wearing sack-cloth and in deep mourning this week. The potential impact of a second defeat to the Boks cannot be underestimated. Kiwis aren't just religious in their support of rugby and their national team. It goes beyond that, and anyone who has been in that country when they have lost a series or an important Test will tell you that the reaction can be over the top.
The All Black long period of dominance of the world game has created an expectation. Rule No 1 these days in New Zealand is not just that the All Blacks win, but that they do it in style. Two consecutive defeats to the Boks should not have undermined the New Zealand standing in world rugby, as Wellington was freaky and the Boks should always be expected to push any opponent at home, particularly in Johannesburg or Pretoria. But that wouldn't have stopped the alarm bells from starting to jangle, and that could have set off a bout of second guessing from the coaches.
An undermining of All Black confidence would be good not just for the Boks but every team competing at the top level in world rugby, and would surely have injected greater interest into next year's World Cup. So it was an opportunity lost for the Boks, and it shouldn't sit comfortably with Erasmus that perhaps he conspired against himself and his team in the final minutes when the Boks lost it.
Man-of-the-match Malcolm Marx rightly lamented the soft moments that cost his team when interviewed after the final whistle. One of those soft moments was surely the decision to take him and Faf de Klerk off the field at the very point where the All Blacks were building for their final onslaught.
Willie le Roux was off the field too, so was Francois Louw. The Boks, notwithstanding the late addition of Beast Mtawarira and his more than 100 caps, lacked experience and had too many newbies on the field in those final minutes.
Had it not been for the fact that Erasmus kept substitutions to a minimum when the game was close against Australia in Port Elizabeth the week before, we might just say that the substitutions, and the timing of them, is accepted practice. But it wasn't, and the dearth of change a week earlier suggested that this time Erasmus might have felt the game was won already.
When he made those calls they looked like brave ones, and had it come through he would have claimed that spreading the net of players who have experienced the intense pressure and then the elation of being part of a win over New Zealand was a positive step forward to next year's World Cup.
But his answer to the substitution question in Port Elizabeth was the right one: "We don't just make changes for the sake of it". Substitutions do need to be dependant on game situation, and while Erasmus does make a good point about the build to the World Cup, there is also a good counter-argument that another win over the All Blacks would have brought far greater benefit.
Which sort of sums up Erasmus' first season in charge. He'd say that if you don't experiment now when do you experiment with the World Cup in mind, and many would agree with that, but the counter argument that what the Boks need right now is to establish a winning habit more than anything else is also a solid one.
In many ways the final minutes at Loftus were a microcosm of the season. We will never know for sure if a full-strength Bok team, without experimental selections, would have secured a clean sweep over England by winning the final test of that series in Cape Town. But they would have had a better chance given the momentum that had been built.
Through no fault of his own Erasmus was well behind his All Black counterpart Steve Hansen when he took the job and if you base his performance just on the two tests against New Zealand, he has done extraordinarily well.
But while Erasmus should be happy with his team's performance and a second place in the Championship is better than the Boks have managed in a long time, it is the wins and losses on the results column that Erasmus shouldn't be happy with. Had he just kept the reverse sweep shelved and continued to play in the V until later in his innings, the Boks could have beaten England 3-0 and won the Championship.
That is why while there is no denying he is the right man for the job and is good for South African rugby and the Boks, he should be tinging his rightful feeling of satisfaction with regret.
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