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In the first episode of Chasing the Sun 2 – a documentary series about the Springboks’ 2023 World Cup campaign that is currently airing in South Africa – director of rugby Rassie Erasmus unpacks the “Four Big Games” strategy and explains why the marquee clash against Ireland was never going to be as important as the opening game against Scotland.

While it’s a fascinating admission, it’s not exactly surprising. Erasmus’s Boks have targeted specific games for the better part of six years, winning 68% of all Tests while claiming a series victory against the British & Irish Lions as well as two World Cups.

Top coaches typically target seven wins at a World Cup – four during the pool phase in addition to the three playoffs. But Erasmus, who has won back-to-back World Cup titles with the Boks despite conceding big losses during both the 2019 and 2023 pool phase, has aimed lower.

In 2019, Erasmus was confident that Japan rather than Ireland would top Pool A, and face the runners-up of Pool B – which included New Zealand and South Africa. While Bok fans lamented an early loss to the All Blacks as if it was the end of the world, Erasmus assured his charges that they only needed to beat Namibia, Italy and Canada to qualify for the play-offs.

He simplified the equation further by stating that four big games remained, namely the match against Italy and the three knockout fixtures. As it happened, the Boks thrashed Italy, and went on to beat Japan, Wales and England in the playoffs, before lifting the title.

As soon as the next World Cup draw was confirmed, Erasmus revisited his “Four Big Games” strategy in preparation for the 2023 tournament in France. He accepted that the Boks would play the hosts or their traditional rivals in the quarter-finals, and having no preference, targeted just one of the pool fixtures against tier-one opposition.

In Chasing the Sun 2, Erasmus went into this strategy in more detail.

“If you beat Scotland, then you have another three big games, which is the quarter-final, the semi-final and the final… because you should beat Tonga [and Romania]. If we lost to Scotland, then we knew that we hadn’t played one of our four big games… then we had to beat Ireland.

Rassie Erasmus knew his Springboks had to beat Scotland to stand a better chance of winning the World Cup (Photo Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“I didn’t have a preference of New Zealand or France for the quarter-final, so when the guys were analysing – and they did a shitload of analysing – I said, take your focus off Leinster and La Rochelle and the way they play.

“Scotland only has two teams, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Our big game is Scotland. Everybody was a little bit pissed off the first day I said that.”

Indeed, many people tend to lose their minds whenever a coach states that a 100% win-record is unattainable, and that they have other priorities to consider.

Fans throw their toys whenever squads are rotated or key players are rested. Loaded terms such as “disrespecting the jersey” and “a lack of ambition” enter the discourse, with little acknowledgment for the game’s player management challenges.

Erasmus made a series of statements regarding his plans for the short and long term at a recent press conference in Cape Town, and as you’d expect, the reaction was mixed.

The Boks are prioritising the 2027 World Cup, and ultimately the prospect of a third-successive title. While Erasmus wants the Boks to become a more consistent outfit over the next few seasons, he won’t lose any sleep over win percentages.

“I would rather win the World Cup than sit at 88% of Tests won. That, for me, is a better result than consistently not winning the World Cup at all but being in the 80s.

Rassie Erasmus

“In building a squad and trialling guys, in giving opportunities and always looking to improve squad depth and changing the way we do things to stay cutting edge … sometimes you have to try things,” the Bok coach said.

“We certainly did lose a few Test matches in the last couple of years between Rugby World Cups by trying things to know the answers for when we get to the World Cup.

“It would be wonderful as head coach if we do better between World Cups, but then again, don’t you want to peak and already have all the answers at a World Cup?

“I would rather win the World Cup than sit at 88% of Tests won. That, for me, is a better result than consistently not winning the World Cup at all but being in the 80s.

“I would love to get that winning percentage up, but we surely have to be brave and take chances with youngsters and get those things right.”

Rassie Erasmus
Rassie Erasmus is an arch strategist and communicator (Photo Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Ireland won four of their five games in the recent Six Nations, and enjoyed a win-record in excess of 80% in 2021, 2022 and 2023. For all of that success, however, they are yet to progress beyond the World Cup quarter-finals.

As it stands, we have the two leading rugby nations on opposite sides of this debate.

While the Boks have proved that they can win World Cups, they have have lost a number of marquee Tests in-between World Cups – and have failed to capture a few other annual titles in the process.

Ireland have dominated in the northern hemisphere, and have shown that they can win in Australia and New Zealand in recent years. They will have a shot at a historic series victory in South Africa this July.

Nevertheless, the question of their World Cup temperament will continue to loom large until they clear that hurdle – and in 2027, that could be a tall order, given that they will be without Jonathan Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and several other veterans.

Andy Farrell and Erasmus have work to do with regards to bringing the next generation through and rebuilding a well balanced squad in the coming seasons. The latter recently stated that the Bok squad that travels to Australia will boast an average age of 30.

Andy Farrell and Erasmus have work to do with regards to bringing the next generation through and rebuilding a well balanced squad in the coming seasons. The latter recently stated that the Bok squad that travels to Australia will boast an average age of 30. A number of uncapped players are on his radar – 16 were invited to an alignment camp earlier this year – while the youngsters who toured with the Boks last year should receive more game time in 2024 with a view to 2027.

Perhaps the Boks will go on to win a third-consecutive title and add to their legacy. It’s tempting to say that such an outcome would compensate for a dearth of big wins and titles in 2024, 2025 and 2026.

South Africa v Ireland
South Africa haven’t beaten Ireland, who have a better win percentage, since 2016 but boast two World Cups and see that as a better return (Photo by Christian Liewig//Getty Images)

The truth is that the Boks have the quality to improve on their win-record, and shouldn’t settle for the status quo.

They may lose a few games along the way, as Erasmus rotates his squad and experiments with new players and combinations. Whether they should be excused for winning 69% of their matches over a four-year period – as they did in the last cycle – and failing to lift a single Rugby Championship title is another story.

Erasmus has said that the overriding goal is to win the 2027 World Cup. But if the team doesn’t secure big results, particularly in the early part of the 2024 season, all of his best laid-plans will be severely compromised.

The first clash against Wales at Twickenham is a potential banana peel. The Boks will be without most of their best players, as the game will be staged outside of the international window.

The Japan-based Boks and a clutch of youngsters will have to get the job done. While it’s a great opportunity to test the depth and tick the development box, they don’t want to lose to the Six Nations wooden-spoon holders just a couple of weeks before the series against Ireland.

A best-case scenario sees the Boks beating Wales and securing a series win against Ireland. They should be too strong for Portugal, even if they decide to field some of their fringe players in this fixture.

The double-header against the Wallabies will present a series of challenges, given that the side has a new coach in Joe Schmidt and the fact that the Boks have lost every Test bar one in Australia over the past 11 years.

Having won four matches, they would be ideally placed for what could be a monumental Rugby Championship campaign.

The double-header against the Wallabies will present a series of challenges, given that the side has a new coach in Joe Schmidt and the fact that the Boks have lost every Test bar one in Australia over the past 11 years.

That said, it may take some time for Schmidt to rebuild the Wallabies, and the Boks should be favourites to win at least one of those games.

Fortunately, the Boks will have a couple of weeks’ break between the second game in Australia and the first of two games against the All Blacks on South African soil.

They came close to securing successive victories against New Zealand in 2022 – and winning the Freedom Cup for the first time since 2009 – only to fall short in the latter game staged in Johannesburg. It’s fair to say that they have a score to settle, although the All Blacks will be equally desperate to prove a point, given what transpired in the 2023 World Cup final.

All Blacks Haka
Losses over any team, especially the All Blacks, will be forgiven to a point (Photo Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Erasmus has played down the importance of consistent results in the wake of the 2023 World Cup. And yet, he will know what a series win against Ireland, a Freedom Cup series victory and Rugby Championship triumph will do for the team on several levels.

If the team ticks all of those boxes, Erasmus will have more freedom to experiment on the November tour to the northern hemisphere.

On the other hand, if the Boks suffer a historic series defeat to Ireland and go yet another season without the Freedom Cup and Rugby Championship titles, the need for results will be greater and Erasmus will feel the pressure.



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