It comes to something when, in time of need, one must turn to Rassie Erasmus to act as the voice reason. Yes, the very same Erasmus who was banned for two months by World Rugby for the scandalous videos that were “leaked” to the press criticising the performance of referee Nic Berry during the 2021 Lions tour and who, a year later, was banned for an additional two matches by World Rugby for similar behaviour towards Wayne Barnes.
The very same Erasmus who was suspected of – but denied – using a burner account to aim further vitriol at Berry and his colleague, Ben O’Keefe, on the same Lions tour. And, yes, the very same Erasmus who concocted the Springboks’ new traffic-light signalling system, which the South African coaching team deny is being used for tactical reasons (it is simply coincidence that whenever a red light is shown from the technical area, they happen to kick at goal, we are supposed to believe).
So, when I say it comes to something that Erasmus has emerged as an unlikely pillar of sanity, it really has come to something. Yet, after South Africa came within five points – and as many metres – of avoiding defeat against Ireland in one of the most atomic and atmospheric pool matches in the history of the World Cup, that is the reality in which we find ourselves – and it is not an alternate one.
At the centre of the Springbok post-mortem was their goal-kicking accuracy – or lack of it. Manie Libbok left five points out there; Faf de Klerk six – admittedly from long range. The Springboks had recently called up Handré Pollard, an extremely accurate goal-kicker, but had opted against using the Leicester fly-half for the clash with Ireland.
The theory goes that if South Africa had kicked their goals, they would have won. That theory, of course, is obtuse and reductive. The Springboks might have won but, equally, they might not have. We will never know. Who is to say that, had Libbok kicked his goals, Ireland would not have replied in kind? The entire narrative of the match would have shifted. It is basic chaos theory.
What we do know, however, is that Libbok played beautifully at fly-half. We know that Libbok is a generational talent, a silky footballer, whose distribution either with boot or hand has helped transform South Africa from a team to keep an eye on at the World Cup – which is all they were last autumn – to joint favourites. Had Pollard been fully fit and firing for the Ireland match, which he was not, where is the proof that South Africa would have been in such positions to win kickable penalties in the first place? Who is to say, with Pollard at fly-half – a more agricultural playmaker – that the Springboks would not have been further behind?
That is where Erasmus comes in. It would have been easy for the Springboks’ director of rugby to offer Libbok up as a sacrificial scapegoat, for him to suggest spitefully that the only difference between the two sides was the wayward goal-kicking of his fly-half and De Klerk – but he did not. While reiterating that Pollard had not been 100 per cent fit, Erasmus realised that South Africa had been defeated because, over the course of 80 minutes, they were marginally inferior to Ireland. That is how sport tends to work.
“If you weigh up the different things Manie does… he is obviously in a bit of a dip with his goal-kicking. He knows it, we know it, the world knows it, everybody keeps on talking about it,” said Erasmus.
“Manie is certainly playing brilliant fly-half rugby at the moment, obviously his goal-kicking is not matching that at this stage.
“You have to see things in perspective. Handré Pollard is not Superman. Four weeks ago he was totally not ready to play rugby. He wasn’t even running full pace four or five weeks ago. He can’t just come on the field and do goal-kicking; he must tackle, pass, do kick-offs, sidestep, do hand-offs, clean out at the rucks. People think we didn’t pick Handré Pollard because we didn’t want to. That’s not the case.
“Handré is playing this weekend [against Tonga on Sunday], but let’s see first of all how Handré does the other stuff in the game. Does he get through it on the contact side of things? I am sure he’ll also take some time to find his rhythm with his kicking under pressure. Tonga will be a great test for him as a yardstick to see where he is before we go – if we go – into those quarter-finals, and who will be on the field.”
So, not even Erasmus believes that Pollard is the golden goose that the South African rugby public have billed him as. Of course, Pollard would bring greater goal-kicking accuracy to the Springboks, but the reigning world champions might regress in other departments. Besides, Libbok kicks goals for his franchise, Stormers, so with just 10 caps to his name, it might be that the 26-year-old is growing into the role at Test level.
A five-point loss in a non-knockout match to the world’s No 1-ranked side is by no means a reason for South Africa to panic. A few points went by the wayside but, who knows, maybe the Springboks, whose coaching team contain some of the game’s shrewdest thinkers, might be willing to sacrifice the posts for the paint, and build their scoreboard through scoring tries.
That would be straight out of the Erasmus playbook.