Former South Africa winger Thinus Delport is impressed with Rassie Erasmus’ confident Springboks ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
The Boks open their campaign against New Zealand in Yokohama on September 21, a match that will be the pool-shaping game.
South Africa’s recent Rugby Championship triumph has made them everyone’s dark horses to win a third global title, and although the All Blacks have had their own minor setbacks this year, it would take a brave person to go against them.
Under Erasmus though, the Springboks are purring with confidence again and look a different side to the one that struggled over 18 months ago under Allister Coetzee.
The Eastern Cape man only took over as head coach in March 2018 but has managed to build depth in most positions, capture the imagination of the South African rugby public again, clinch their first piece of silverware in a decade and create an exciting and diverse game plan.
And Delport, who played for the Springboks between 2000 and 2003, admits he has been highly impressed with the new coaching ticket and how they have improved the team in such a short space of time.
“I’ve been very impressed with them. Erasmus has only had a short turnaround time compared to the other World Cup contenders and hasn’t had a full preparation cycle. He only stepped in last year after two disappointing years for the Springboks for Allister Coetzee,” said the 44-year-old, who will appear at McGettigan’s JLT on Saturday for a World Cup Q and A alongside legends Lewis Moody and Peter Stringer.
“I don’t think he would have liked the season he had in 2018 but it was all about re-building, creating his culture and creating his plans that he wants to play under. Certainly in this short season we’ve had already, it seems that they’ve come together.
“Last year it was a surprise when they won away to the All Blacks and then lost to them closely at home. In the Autumn internationals, we had a close defeat to England but it could have gone the other way.
“It’s proven to be an upward curve since he’s been involved. The guys look confident in themselves and the way the team want to move forward.”
Winning the Rugby Championship last month – South Africa’s first trophy since the 2009 Tri Nations – was confidence-boosting and a small prize for the path that Erasmus embarked on when he took the job last year.
Victories over Australia and Argentina, and a thrilling 16-16 draw against the All Blacks has the Springboks hitting form at the right time. And there is still plenty more to come.
Returning to the traditional Springbok style of play, the powerful South Africa forwards carry the ball with ferocity and a strong set-piece sets the platform to unleash their elusive backs at every opportunity.
Players like Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert, Duane Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx are all imperious with ball in hand and can make a critical difference against big opposition.
Behind the scrum, Faf du Kerk and Handre Pollard orchestrate proceedings from the half-back roles, with the searing pace of Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe to exploit out wide.
“Every one of the players has bought into the way they play. Under Coetzee, they played an expansive game, one that was very similar to the All Blacks play,” said Delport.
“That is still there but Rassie has taken them back to traditional strengths of Springboks rugby. It has always been forward dominated. They have found a good balance between the exciting brand of rugby and the traditional forward play.
“There is a good, accurate kicking strategy. They’ve employed an aggressive defensive system under Jacques Nienaber. The way pressure is applied and they force their opponents into mistakes is impressive. The players have bought in and the depth in each position. Not all people agree with that style of defence but it is working for the team and they are achieving great results from it.
“It is led by Faf de Klerk. His workrate, passing, energy lifts everyone around him. There is a lot of positives from the way they play at the moment.”
Behind De Flerk is perhaps the best fly-half in the world, on form, in Pollard.
The 25-year-old was one of the keys to the Boks’ Rugby Championship success, using his accurate boot and solid distribution to produce consistent attacking opportunities.
Solid if not spectacular in the draw against the All Blacks, Pollard shone against the Pumas in Salta, scoring two tries and kicking 21 points in a virtuoso display.
And Delport believes the Bulls star can emerge as a real leader this campaign if he can stay injury free and continue to get more quality game time under his belt.
“He was struggling with injuries in previous years and got injured when he played in Japan. He’s found some good form without injuries. That’s one added point. He’s always showed a lot of talent and potential. The dip in form was down to injuries,” added Delport.
“He’s playing behind a dominant pack with very good players. The quality of ball that they are generating from set-piece and phase play has allowed him to dictate the way the Springboks play.
“He’s got a measured kicking game, attacks the line when he needs to and he has a superb distribution game. It’s on the back of a strong, experienced pack that has created the opportunities for him.”
It will be fascinating to see how the Boks now deal with the increased attention in their pool opener against New Zealand.
The All Blacks are weakened by the loss of injured star lock Brodie Retallick, who will not be fit until the knockout stages of the competition.
But they can still call on the experience and class of 2011 and 2015 winners Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read. And in Beauden Barrett they possess a two-time World Rugby Player of the Year.
“The benefit of the draw with New Zealand is that we play them in the pool stages. Regardless of what happens in the first game, if we do have a successful run we only meet them in the final game – if both teams progress that far,” Delport went on.
“New Zealand are still the favourites, but you have more teams capable of causing upsets on the day. That’s the beauty, attraction and excitement of the competition with so many teams that can challenge on the day and take the crown.”
On a more poignant note, South Africa lost a legend over the weekend as Chester Williams died from a heart attack at the tender age of 49.
Williams was the only black player in the Springboks squad as they clinched a historic World Cup title in 1995.
He scored four tries against Samoa in the quarter-finals before tasting glory in the 15-12 final win over New Zealand – a title that went far beyond the theme of victory as a nation came together in the early post-apartheid era.
Delport played alongside Williams for club and country over the years, winning the Currie Cup in 1999 for the Lions, and hailed the impact of one of South Africa’s most iconic players.
“He was one of my heroes growing up,” Delport said. “I was a 20-year-old when he won the World Cup in 1995. Chessie came in later on in the tournament because of injury and he missed out on the side. He stepped in at the quarter-final against Samoa and scored four tries. He become one of the faces of the Springboks win of 1995.
“We all know and understand the impact that win had on South Africa politically with that Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar moment. It had a huge impact, not just sporting-wise, but politically. Chester’s always been one of those faces that helped transform the country. In terms of that legendary status, he was up there with the best.
“Personally, I was very fortunate to play with him, and the amount of experience and knowledge he brought to my game development was incredible.”
Owen Farrell insists England enter the World Cup battle hardened by a strenuous series of warm-up Tests as he declares the best is yet to come.
Italy were thumped 37-0 in Newcastle on Friday to complete a successful summer of preparations which peaked with a record victory over Ireland at Twickenham. A narrow defeat to Wales in Cardiff was their only blemish.
They will touch down in Tokyo on Monday morning as second favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy behind New Zealand and Farrell, the team’s captain, insists they must be ready for anything in the weeks ahead.
“These matches have been good for us. The Tests have been different, all of them,” Farrell said.
“Every single game has thrown different things at us and we’ve managed to deal with it and put in decent performances.
“There’s still a lot left in us and that’s a good place to be in. We’ll make sure we keep working on it.
“What has pleased me most about the four games is our ability to stick in the fight in different situations.
“That Wales game away was a tough game. We went behind but we stuck in it and we gave ourselves an opportunity at the end.
“There’s a plan in place to get us as ready as we possibly can be for this World Cup and it feels like we are in a good place. But you never know what could happen.
“You have got to be as prepared as you can for what’s in front of you, but at the same time you have got to be ready to deal with anything. We will make sure we’re calm enough to do that.”
Tokyo has been braced for the arrival of Typhoon Faxai, which has the potential to delay England’s arrival into the Japanese capital.
Australia, possible quarter-final opponents who are due to land the same day, have changed to a later departure in an attempt to avoid winds that could reach up to 180 kilometres per hour and that have forced the cancellation of dozens of flights in the region.
England’s plan is to spend a night in Tokyo before heading to the south western island of Kyushu, where they will complete a week-long pre-tournament training camp ahead of their opening match against Tonga on September 22.
Lock Joe Launchbury (back) and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie (knee) have been added to their lengthy list of wounded after sustaining knocks at St James’ Park.
Centre Henry Slade and wing Jack Nowell will arrive in Japan without playing a single minute of the four warm-up Tests due to respective knee and ankle issues.
Jonathan Joseph, also a centre, is nursing a ‘leg muscle’ injury while Mako Vunipola is unlikely to be ready until the latter stages of the group phase when the pivotal games against Argentina and France are played.
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Ireland gave head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best the perfect farewell at the Aviva Stadium with a confidence-boosting 19-10 win over Wales on Saturday.
Both men will relinquish their respective roles after the Rugby World Cup and they toasted their final match in Dublin by steering Ireland to the top of World Rugby’s rankings for the first time.
The home side though were left to sweat a possible knee injury for wing Keith Earls, amid a solid victory where Rob Kearney, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan all bagged tries.
Rhys Patchell’s third concussion in a year, meanwhile, handed Wales a big World Cup injury scare.
Here’s the key talking points from Dublin:
Another improved display for the Men in Green.
They showed lots of energy and intricacy around the ball carrier, and stepped up their performance levels again after last week’s 22-17 win over the same opposition.
Schmidt’s side demonstrated some positive and fast back line play, slick passing, strong defence (they missed only eight of their 115 tackles), good kicking variety and ran good angles to make it difficult for Wales to stop them getting over the gain line.
They built phases, produced some strong carries from CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Ryan, and looked back to their fluid best in attack.
There were doubts creeping into this team about their form in recent weeks, but they look to have timed it right. It wasn’t a perfect display by any means – with the lineout still creaking – but certainly a lot better than previous weeks.
It was controlled and clinical, and one that sets them up nicely ahead of their World Cup opener against Scotland on September 22.
WALES TIRE OUT
While simple rugby worked well for Ireland, Wales – after a promising start – were unable to gain a foothold for large parts of the contest.
Despite producing some productive moments in attack and defence in the first half, Wales couldn’t convert their possession and territory into points.
Hadleigh Parkes steamed through for their only try of the game on 31 minutes and at that point the visitors looked full of confidence.
But some uncharacteristic weak defending and poor decision making in attack saw Wales struggle.
Ireland were methodical and picked the right options, starved Wales of possession and that is psychologically very tiring for any defence, especially for one that is generally flawless over the ball.
One of the positives for Warren Gatland when he dissects the video over the coming days was the accuracy of the set-piece. From the lineout, Wales won all eight of their throws, and from the scrum they won all three.
Wales looked fatigued as the game wore on and, coupled with a number of poor refereeing decisions, lacked that cutting edge that saw them soar to Six Nations success earlier this year.
For Gatland, it’s all about the performance of their four warm-up matches over the results and he will study the games endlessly to have his team primed and firing for Georgia in 16 days time. In a World Cup year, the only thing that matters is the World Cup itself.
Ryan may only be in his third year in professional rugby but Ireland play so much better when the 23-year-old is on the field.
Kearney produced a majestic display and would have been the name pursed on most people’s lips for man-of-the-match, but Ryan shone brightest at the Aviva Stadium, setting the tone for his team in defence and at the breakdown.
The Leinster man scored a try, made 10 carries and 10 tackles and was always looking to get involved at any opportunity.
He continuously purrs with confidence and is a future Ireland captain in the making.
The argument can be made that he is potentially Ireland’s most important player already.