South Africa Coach Rassie Erasmus may have been exaggerating when he said defeat to the All Blacks on Saturday could have him fired but the comments underscored how desperate the Springboks are to be competitive at the World Cup.
Erasmus was given a six-year contract in 2017 to rebuild the fallen heavyweights, but defeats in the last two Rugby Championship tests by Australia and Argentina have put him under pressure.
For all the pledges of support from the South Africa Rugby Union, that pressure will only ease with a strong showing against the champions All Blacks at Wellington Regional Stadium.
“The moment you beat New Zealand in New Zealand you’re back to where you want to be and your planning is on track and you can tell yourself you’re really contenders at a World Cup,” Erasmus told reporters on Thursday.
“That’s how we see it.”
With South Africa drawn in the same World Cup group with New Zealand for the first time, and their pool B opener in Yokohama just over a year away, little wonder Erasmus is looking ahead.
He named a strong starting side for Saturday’s clash, restoring Handre Pollard to the pivotal flyhalf role and Malcolm Marx as starting hooker.
Flyhalf Elton Jantjies and hooker Bongi Mbonambi, who both started in the 23-18 loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane last week, have been dropped to the bench.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle against a team who is number one in the world, who dictate almost every facet of the game,” Erasmus said.
“But this team is pretty much our strongest available … I really think after this game we will know where we stand.”
All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen also recalled several first-choice players after some of his less experienced squad members beat the Pumas 46-24 in Nelson last week.
He bulked up his loose forwards with Sam Cane and Liam Squire returning, while first choice halfbacks Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett were also recalled.
Hansen’s midfield combination has again been reshuffled with Ryan Crotty returning after he recovered from a nasty head clash with Jack Goodhue in the first game against Australia.
Crotty has had a litany of head injuries in the last two years and concerns had been raised about his health, but the 29-year-old said he had convinced not only the doctors but also his mother and sister.
“I’ve had to convince them (I’m) all right. So, no, they’re fine and they’re excited that I’m back out there,” Crotty said of his family.
“Honestly, there’s no stone left unturned around head injuries these days. So, the diligence around that gives you confidence.”