With a break in the action ahead of next weekend’s final round of the Rugby Championship, Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at the approaches and attitudes of the coaches thus far.
All Blacks mentor Foster is fortunate to be in the job and is acting accordingly.
The win over the Springboks at Ellis Park last year saved his bacon and while many still have their doubts and feel he should never have gotten the job in the first place, he’s started his final year in charge on the perfect note.
The 41-12 win over the Pumas in Mendoza was a signal of intent and the 35-20 triumph over the Springboks in Auckland at the weekend was a strong World Cup statement.
It also all but assured the New Zealanders of another Rugby Championship title as they should have little trouble adding to the winless Wallabies’ woes in Melbourne next Saturday.
Foster is keeping as low a profile as possible, saying and doing little to attract attention, yet he has blooded two new internationals in wing Emoni Narawa, who started against Argentina, and prop Tamaiti Williams, who came off the bench against South Africa.
He also got the answers he wanted in starting Damian Mackenzie at No 10 against the Pumas, with the Chiefs star making the most of the opportunity, before Foster soundly reverted to first-choice flyhalf Richie Mo’unga for the battle against the Springboks.
It must be said Foster owes a lot of gratitude to Jason Ryan for transforming the pack since taking over as forwards coach from John Plumtree after the historic home series loss to Ireland last July.
Jacques Nienaber/Rassie Erasmus
The Springboks are unique in that they’re guided by a coaching collaboration between head coach Nienaber and Director of Rugby Erasmus.
Nienaber has a great rugby brain. However, he’s more of a defensive guru than he is a head coach. Since his surprise appointment in the role after the 2019 World Cup, it’s been unclear how in charge he really is, with many believing Erasmus is still primarily pulling the strings.
Together, the pair have taken an out-of-the-box approach to this year’s truncated tournament by employing a split-squad tactic. It proved to be a masterstroke in 2019, leading to Southern Hemisphere supremacy and global glory, but hasn’t been as successful results-wise this campaign.
The 43-12 win over the Wallabies in Pretoria was the perfect start but phase two fell flat as they came up well short in the virtual title decider against the All Blacks. Nevertheless, this season is all about the bigger picture that is the World Cup and the strategy, Nienaber has rightfully pointed out, has served its purpose so far.
“The majority of the guys have had an opportunity to play,” he said in the wake of the Auckland defeat. “Our plan was to win the Rugby Championship and to assess the players and we’ve got some good answers from these two games. We’ve got one more game in the Championship and then three warm-up games to complete that process.”
From a fan perspective, the unpredictability surrounding selection has added an extra level of excitement and intrigue to the tournament and it’ll be interesting to see what team the Springbok brains trust put out against Argentina at Ellis Park as they look to bounce back with an emphatic victory.
It’s also pleasing how Erasmus has stayed out of the spotlight. There’s been no snide comments or Twitter rants from Rassie, which is refreshing as even Springbok supporters had grown tired of his tirades on social media. He did have his say after the All Blacks game, refusing to lay blame at referee Mathieu Raynal and being classy in defeat.
“His performance was much better than ours,” he said on Twitter, adding:
Known for being abrasive, Cheika has been notably low-key to start with this season.
Ever-ambitious, he proclaimed the Pumas can win the World Cup when he replaced Mario Ledesma as mentor last year and made major strides in his maiden season in charge.
After taking the All Blacks mauling in Mendoza in this year’s season opener on the chin, his charges responded with a thrilling 34-31 win over Australia in Sydney at the weekend.
It was just the third Argentinian victory over the Wallabies Down Under and the first time the Pumas have won successive Tests against them, having triumphed by a record 48-17 scoreline in the previous meeting in San Juan last August.
Cheika’s response to the weekend’s win was fascinating. He acknowledged the significance of the achievement but didn’t get carried away, saying, “What we were looking for was improvements from what happened last week. It’s like even if we’d gone down to the end, I would have been happy with the improvements. I thought we made some good improvements, although we’ve still got a lot more to improve on.
“We were able to find a way to win even though we weren’t playing our best. We’ve still got a lot of growing to do for where we got to go the way they were able to find a way to do it, not just at the end, right through the game. I felt like we had some good patches. We had some other things that weren’t that great, but I like the fact that we were able to still win the game.”
He seemingly has a newfound maturity and recognises the importance of building to the World Cup step by step, which bodes well for the Pumas.
Rugby needs characters and Jones is one of the most colourful around. He makes press conferences fun with his charisma, quick wit and banter, spicing up what’s otherwise predictable build-ups to Test matches.
With decades of success as an astute coach at international and club levels, he’s no jester, but at the same time, he hasn’t been able to back up his words in recent years as he used to. He crashed out of the England head coach post last year and hasn’t been the saviour of Wallabies rugby fans and those who appointed him in January had hoped.
Instead, his second term at the helm has gotten off to the worst possible start with two crushing losses that leave Australia at the bottom of the log. To be fair, his rescue job is immense as he’s inherited one of the weakest Wallabies teams in recent memory.
That said, there hasn’t been a sliver of Jones magic…no sign of his genius. He didn’t have any tricks up his sleeve to combat the Springboks’ power and suffered the indignation of losing to the Pumas on home soil at the weekend.
Also unlike him, he painted himself in a bad light when he snapped at a South African reporter who asked him about the loss to a “half-baked” Springbok team and he flipped out during last Saturday’s nailbiter, smashing a headset to pieces.
He at least cooled down by the time he had to do the post-match presser and stuck to who he is, comparing his team to a broken car. “I remember my first car was a Datsun 1200. You’d fix the handbrake and the next day the windscreen wipers would break, and we’re a bit like that,” he said.
“Last week our set-piece wasn’t good. This week our set-piece was good. Last week, we didn’t attack. This week we did attack, but our decision-making around the ball was poor. This is a bit of a process we’ve got to go through.”
True to form, though, he remains “100 percent confident” the now-eighth-ranked Wallabies can win the Webb Ellis Cup and given their favourable draw, they’ll be in the conversation.