Rassie's experience vital with young squad
Springboks and All Blacks open with decisive pool clash in the Rugby World Cup
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus is in a unique position in a Rugby World Cup year because he has played in a World Cup right into its final week. That understanding could be vital in preparing a largely callow squad for a tough mission in Japan later this year.
Erasmus was one of the vanquished on the field at Twickenham in 1999 when the Boks lost in extra time to eventual winners Australia. A wobbly 45m drop-goal by Wallaby flyhalf Stephen Larkham separated the teams in extra time.
This year the Boks face the All Blacks in their opening game of the tournament. The clash in Yokohama should be to decide the pool as the only other tier-one team in their pool is Italy.
Winning the group should mean avoiding Ireland in the quarterfinals and probably facing Scotland. It's a classic high road/low road scenario. Avoiding one of the world's top four teams in the last eight is first prize.
Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick feels similarly while Irish legend Brian O'Driscoll would rather Ireland play the Boks. Ireland will be interested spectators in that opening clash on September 21.
"Scotland are capable of knocking off teams but you really don't want to play Ireland in the quarterfinals," Fitzpatrick told the Sunday Times. Ireland beat the All Blacks in Dublin in 2017.
"Ireland have worked out a winning formula against the All Blacks. Ireland played New Zealand at their own game, comfortable without the ball and using defence to put the All Blacks under pressure. A couple of mistakes led to Ireland tries."
O'Driscoll even went as far as suggesting, a little tongue-in-cheek, Ireland might want to lose to Scotland if the Boks beat the All Blacks in the opening game, just to avoid facing New Zealand in the last eight.
"What's to say the Boks won't beat the All Blacks, so maybe we'll be trying to lose to Scotland to avoid New Zealand," O'Driscoll said with a laugh. "There is a lot of rugby to be played and a lot of permutations but one thing is guaranteed, there will be no easy passage through the quarterfinals."
Erasmus can only prepare his team for what they know is coming - their four pool opponents, New Zealand, Italy, Namibia and Canada. But he understands the approach and mentality needed to go deep into the tournament.
"World Cups are always similar," Erasmus told the Sunday Times. "The more pressure there is, the less attacking rugby you see, and the more conservative and mechanical the game becomes.
"Set phases, discipline and defence are the keys when the tournament reaches the business end. It's a bit different in pool games where you might see five or six tries.
"But in knockouts, games are more tense, the referees are under more pressure, so things like managing the referee are vital."
Preparing the Boks for pressure, especially a young team, can only be done through experience, which comes with time. It's a luxury Erasmus hasn't had with the Bok job in addition to his director of rugby duties.
But he has a spine of experience if the tournament were played tomorrow. Tendai Mtawarira, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Handré Pollard, Duane Vermeulen, Jesse Kriel, Frans Malherbe, Willie le Roux and Damian de Allende have all played in a World Cup semifinal.