SOUTH AFRICA head coach Rassie Erasmus says that Saturday’s match against Scotland will present his team with a completely different challenge to what they have encountered so far on this November tour of Europe – but having crossed swords with Gregor Townsend on a number of occasions when the pair operated in the Guinness PRO12 (as it was then known), he believes he can have his team ready for whatever the men in blue throw at them.
“It will be a very big test,” said the former Munster head coach. “I have coached against Gregor a lot – one season we played Glasgow four times – so I know how he coaches and his style of coaching is certainly all about a fit team who are well organised. They are a team who will test you in all facets of the game.
“I think they have very much a Super Rugby style of play. It looks like it will be fairly dry on Saturday and although they play really well tactically, they are not afraid to attack from anywhere – that is the way Gregor coaches.
“It is going to be a totally different challenge from England and France [during the last two weeks] – the French with their big moment players, and England with their kicking game, I think Scotland has a mix of both.
“So, I know about them and what areas we need to focus on this week ahead of the game. But it’s the same for him [Townsend] because he knows the way we are coaching.”
South Africa come into this game on the back of a dramatic last-gasp win over France in Paris on Sunday evening, but Erasmus is in no doubt that his team will need to improve their performance this week.
“Test match rugby is all about the result and sometimes you lose perspective about how well or bad you played,” he explained. “In the England game we lost, and it felt like a failure, but I think we played better there, than in the French game when we won in the last minute – although it does make this training week much easier.
“So, that few seconds at the end was just enough for us, but we were not good at decision-making against France, and that includes me – when the guys run onto the field that’s not them on their own, we’ve been practicing all week together.
“I thought the balance between when to run things and when to kick was not right – maybe that was down to pressure and the weather, and maybe because losing the previous two matches meant we got a little bit of tunnel vision and played within ourselves. But I have no doubt that it wasn’t spot on.”
Success breeds success
The big plus from Saturday’s performance is that his team found a way to win, and that is a happy habit which Erasmus believes points to a growing depth of character within the squad.
“There have been a lot of Test matches this year – I’d say four or five – where we have been behind, and we do have that belief that we can come back,” he said. “Even in the England game when we were down we managed to almost get it back at the end. But you don’t always have to come back – sometimes it is nice to have the lead from the beginning!
“It is encouraging that we can fight back, but we should not always be putting ourselves in this position, it should not be a trend!”
With this being the teams third Test match in as many weekends, there will, inevitably, be a temptation to rotate the squad to try and keep players fresh at the end of a long, hard Southern Hemisphere season – but this will be balanced against the importance of building into their final Autumn Test against Wales next weekend, and beyond that towards the World Cup .
“When you lose a match, you have to pick up momentum again and that was the balancing act after losing to England,” he said. “It was good to get Faf de Klerk and the more experienced guys back for France, and I have to say the guys who are in the European cycle like Faf, Francois Louw and Vincent Koch are as fresh as the guys we are playing against, while we [the South African based players] are coming to the end of our season. That helped a lot last week in terms of getting back in the last few minutes.
“I want to give a few guys chances, but it is a balancing act to keep momentum.”
Given the positive impact Erasmus saw from De Klerk on Saturday, it is rather surprising that the scrum-half has now been released back to Sale Sharks this week for their clash against Saracens – which appears to be a gesture motivated by the South African coach’s desire to build good relations with the European clubs who have Springbok players on their books, alongside the desire to give understudy 21-tear-old understudy Embrose Papier a much-needed run in the team.
Erasmus added that he is hopeful that second-row Eben Etzebeth will be available again after recovering from a foot injury picked up against England, while there are minor doubts over Koch and fellow tight-head Frans Malherbe. Number eight Warren Whiteley is unlikely to be involved on Saturday due to a calf problem.