WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The chaos that occasionally appears at the heart of South African rugby has been evident in the Springboks' preparation for Saturday's Rugby Championship test against New Zealand.
Bold predictions, dire warnings, mixed messages and the collision of short term and long term goals have combined to complicate South Africa's preparation for a match they are already given little chance of winning.
A warning from head coach Rassie Erasmus that his job may be on the line if the Springboks lose on Saturday has been characterized as an attempt to motivate his players in the hope of avoiding a third-straight loss. As South Africa's Director of Rugby, Erasmus has a say in the hiring and firing of any Springbok coach and there is no movement among South African rugby bosses to remove him from either role.
Erasmus said history shows his recently-signed six-year contract can quickly be terminated if Springboks fans lose confidence in him. But the message that Erasmus's future may hang on the outcome of a single match is contradicted by his assertion that the Springboks' coaching staff are focused on the long term — on winning the next two World Cups — and not on the result of a single test.
The messages are not entirely discordant: the best way for Erasmus to demonstrate he has a plan to win a World Cup in 12 months would be to beat the world's No. 1 team on Saturday. Having the capacity to do so is essential to achieving the kind of long-term success Erasmus espouses.
But the Springboks' performance against the Wallabies was so lacking in direction, particularly in attack, there was no indication they have the ability to become World Cup contenders, a year out from the tournament.
The Springboks obeyed first principles and tried to dominate Australia up front but a shaky scrum and poorly-functioning lineout made that impossible. The return of Malcolm Marx at hooker on Saturday should improve the lineout.
Without scrum and lineout solidity, there was no platform for the Springboks to attack from set piece and they showed no aptitude for counter-attack, lacking communication on the field.
There seems no single step the Springboks can adopt Saturday to turn around that performance, though they have shown in the past an ability to achieve improvement in a short time. Last year they lost 57-0 to the All Blacks in Auckland, but by a single point in Cape Town three weeks later.
South Africa's best hope seems to lie in matching the All Blacks' physically and minimizing the errors which contributed to their defeat last week, though Erasmus believes the Boks can compete in the open field.
"I don't think it will be physicality in this game. The way the All Blacks are playing, there is so much finesse in their game, they are so good at taking small opportunities," he said. "We currently are creating opportunities and just throwing them out the window every single time.
"I think obviously both teams will have to compete physically because that's New Zealand and South African rugby but- we have to capitalize on opportunities like New Zealand do if we are to be successful."
Erasmus said Saturday's selection and performance will serve a long-term purpose.
"We're trying to mix and match a little bit to see who we can take to the World Cup and who can handle the pressure in different situations," Erasmus said. "It's not just Elton and Handre.
"After six matches I'm finding out about players in different situations. I think this team is the closest to the strongest 23 that we've put out for the seven tests we've played."