Little bite behind Mbalula’s bark

If you believe the hype, the week just past could spell the beginning of the end for the South African Rugby Union. On Monday it lost its chief strategist, Rassie Erasmus. Later the same day the minister of sport, Fikile Mbalula, announced that Saru, along with three other prominent sports bodies, would not be allowed to “host and bid for major and mega international tournaments”.

To put matters in perspective, then. Erasmus has been Saru’s high-performance manager for four years. His tenure coincided with that of Heyneke Meyer. He is credited with putting systems in place that would identify talent at a young age and help it to reach its potential.

In the four-month hiatus between Meyer’s decision to quit and Allister Coetzee’s appointment as Springbok coach, Erasmus was touted as a possible short-term solution, but it didn’t happen.

Mbalula’s statement had about as much venom in it as President Jacob Zuma’s letters of reprimand to Nathi Mthethwa, Geoff Doidge and Thulas Nxesi over their role in the Nkandla debacle. Saru may not bid for “major and mega international tournaments” at the moment, but the minister will look again next year and, by the way, the decision doesn’t affect Super Rugby, incoming tours, the Rugby Championship or the Cape Town Sevens.

In other words, it’s business as usual, but this is an election year and Mbalula has to be seen to be rocking the establishment boat.

This is the man who spoke at length at the press conference announcing Coetzee’s appointment, without once suggesting that he was about to come down on Saru like a ton of feathers. He has done little more than withdraw government’s provisional support for Saru’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, a bid that seemed doomed from the start, anyway.

In the greater scheme of things, Erasmus’s departure is a bigger story. Much of the reason that Coetzee was handed a far smaller back-up staff than his predecessor was accustomed to was a result of the fact that Erasmus and his mobi unit were on hand to fill the gaps. Without Erasmus, the unit is something of a rudderless ship.

Some perspective is required, however. It is perhaps germane to recall the panic that ensued at the Stormers in December when Eddie Jones jumped ship. The man who masterminded Japan’s defeat of the Springboks at last year’s World Cup was stolen away by England, leaving the Stormers without a head coach two months ahead of the new Super Rugby season.

When the dust settled, however, the franchise remembered that it actually had several people already on its books who knew how to coach. The job eventually went to Robbie Fleck and now, with the Stormers having won six out of eight games to head the South African log, it is hard to see what all the panic was about.

Erasmus can take some of the credit. Before joining Saru, he was director of coaching at Western Province and the structures he developed, together with the individuals he encouraged, have helped propel the franchise to its present status.

Which is not to say that the Stormers are on their way to silverware, but merely to point out that life goes on and that graveyards are filled with indispensable people.

It is a shame that events have conspired to keep playing matters out of the news, because last weekend was a good one for South African rugby. The Lions and the Stormers both put away poor opponents in clinical fashion and the Sharks beat the defending champions in Dunedin.

Sadly, it has to be noted that the Sharks beat the Highlanders by a single point despite playing for 68 minutes with an extra man because of the red card dished out to Jason Emery. During that time the Sharks did not score a try, nor did they ever seem likely to create an overlap.

Something is very wrong with the franchise. This week they play the Chiefs in New Plymouth and they must know that they will need a lot more than a robust defence.

Intriguingly, the Sharks are one of four local sides on tour simultaneously, with just the Stormers and the Lions playing at home.

The Bulls need to beat the Force in Perth to keep their campaign on track. The Western Australians have lost seven of their eight fixtures and should be ripe for the plucking, but the Bulls have a dismal record in Australia and nothing should be taken for granted.

The Cheetahs are also in Australia, and have the advantage over their opponents, the Reds, who have had to cross the time zones after losing in Cape Town.

Who knows which Cheetahs side will show up, though? The one that put 90 points past the Sunwolves or the one that capitulated meekly in the second half against the Rebels last week?

The Kings face the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and neither side has anything but pride left to play for. Ironically, if the minister of sport has his way, pride will be the only thing on offer for South African sport for the foreseeable future.

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