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Now to maintain the Bok empire

 

 

A great empire is built upon the premise of a fierce leader and a strong army. What makes an empire timeless is the ability to maintain the intensity that led to its first conquest. If it can sustain that, it will grow, and if not, it will stumble.

The Springbok superpower has now been constructed under the leadership of Siya Kolisi and the guidance of Rassie Erasmus. Their triumph at the 2019 Rugby World Cup has crafted a path for the renewed hope of a nation in gloomy times, and South Africans have embraced it passionately.

It was made evident when the side arrived home on Tuesday. Electrifying to say the least, the energy the public displayed at OR Tambo International Airport was enough to help Eskom out for a few days.

But, once the celebrations fade, there will no longer be room to exceed expectations for the Boks, because South Africa will regard them as the standard. That adds pressure to the already hefty load of donning the green and gold jersey.

The first challenge comes in the form of a new coach. Erasmus’s focus will now be shifted solely to the director of rugby role, which requires him to oversee all levels of rugby in South Africa including the sevens side, the under 23s and the women’s team.

This means that the stage is set for an understudy of his, Jacques Nienaber — the South African defence coach at this World Cup — to take over as head coach of the Boks.

Nienaber and his army buddy Erasmus have been hopping around the sport’s coaching scene together since 2004, which included stints at the Cheetahs, Stormers and even in Ireland at Munster, but Nienaber has never been a head coach.

Considering this factor, former Boks winger Akona Ndungane sees it as a grand challenge for Nienaber.

“If you have never been a head coach, it’s completely different compared to just being a defence coach, because you are just focusing on your part.

“And for coaching, you need to be very good at different aspects of your role, especially in terms of player management,” he said.

But Ndungane and former Boks selector Ian Mcintosh do not write off Nienaber’s ability to achieve success, because of the time he has spent with Erasmus.

Ndungane believes that this would have given him some time to understand the players and the culture of the squad and sport within the dressing room, whereas Mcintosh mentions that under the auspices of Erasmus as director, he has room to enhance his coaching skills as he goes along.

The cornerstone of the Nienaber era will be to make sure that the Boks remain the top team in world rugby, or at least hang around the apex for as long as they can, just as New Zealand did after their 2011 World Cup win. The country would not want to wait another 12 years for success.

According to Ndungane, this consistency begins with the coaching staff, their capacity to continually keep the mentality in the camp strong and to hold the core of this squad together: “It is going to be important for the coach to make sure that those players are still playing at their peak,” he said.

“Obviously you need to groom players like Rassie did, because you need to have a squad full of players where anyone is capable of being a starter. So for the next coach to be successful, he needs to do that with the squad and make sure it is big and deep,” he added.

Tactical consistency will also be needed. As much as Faf de Klerk’s box-kicking may have annoyed the nation throughout the World Cup, Erasmus stuck to that and to strong defensive performances in every match, and it is perhaps why Nienaber is the right man to succeed him.

But, although Ndungane and Mcintosh both agree that brutal defensive displays are critical, the latter explained that a defensive tactic will not always take the side forward. He hailed the performance against England in the final as South African rugby’s “absolute blueprint”.

“What we saw on Saturday is the old heritage of SA rugby where you subdue and penetrate. We got to have big and strong forwards to do that, and then we penetrate,” Mcintosh said.

“With the flair of the new South Africa, with the coloured people and the black people,we’ve got all the ingredients to continue to make that blueprint that came out on Saturday,” he added.

Mcintosh concluded that although Erasmus may be out of the coaching fray, it is his duty to takethis strategy of playing with strength, flair and intensity forward.

As the celebrations continue for now — as a countrywide trophy tour is under way — Erasmus, Kolisi and the boys have witnessed how much lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy meant to a country that has long been yearning for a moment to celebrate.

But they would also know that they have a crown to defend and an empire to maintain.

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Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia is a member of the Mail & Guardian's online team.

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