Can Bok coach Rassie find a mix of power and flair?

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus. Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

The Springboks have been going through a bit of an identity crisis over the last few years since the glory days of the late 2000s.

The Boks' pragmatic, low-risk game plan helped them achieve success during the Jake White era and in the first two years of Pieter de Villiers' tenure. It was a game plan based on good set-piece play, physicality, a top kicking game, stingy defence and the form of a few brilliant individuals such as wing Bryan Habana and master scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.

Between 2007 and 2009 the Boks won the World Cup, earned a series victory over the British & Irish Lions, and lifted the Tri-Nations trophy by beating the All Blacks three times in 2009.

But since 2010 Springbok rugby has been in steady decline to the point where it hit an all-time low when Japan (2015) and Italy (2016) showed the world rugby's biggest bullies can be pushed around.

Part of the problem has been that South African rugby has struggled to evolve its pragmatic game plan into an all-encompassing one. While the rest of the world had caught up physically, the Boks seemed to have lost their hard edge, and actually haven't been able to get their ball-in-hand approach right.

There were efforts from De Villiers, Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee to combine the Boks' set-piece play and physicality with a bit more skill and flair. But all three men reverted back to the tried-and-trusted, old-fashioned South African way of playing when they were under pressure to win to Test matches.

New Bok coach Rassie Erasmus comes from the old school, as he was part of many a Bok team who suffocated the opposition into submission. But he was also one of the smartest and skilful loose forwards around, something that has come to the fore in his coaching as well.

Erasmus is known as a coach who thinks outside the box, but not always someone who empowers his players to make their own decisions on the field. In the 2000s he sat on the roof of the Free State Stadium with coloured cards, indicating what sort of plays the Cheetahs had to execute.

While coaching the Stormers, he instructed his players "to not play any rugby" on a stormy evening at Newlands against the Waratahs. This plan backfired, as the Tahsended up winning the game with the opportunities they were presented on the day.

It was inevitable that the issue of the game plan was going to come up this week when Erasmus and his team got together for the first time to prepare for the Test against Wales in the United States, as well as the series against Eddie Jones' England.

'Balance' is the word that Meyer and Coetzee used quite liberally when talking about game plans. Erasmus, though, was careful when using the word, but admitted he has to find a way to get the old (power) and the new (finesse) to live in perfect harmony with each other.

"I think that is a question that is always asked and I think the answer that coaches always give is that we want to find the balance," Erasmus said.

"I'm not going to try and use the old cliché that we want to find the balance. I think it would be great if we could keep the traditional things that people talk about us, and where people used to fear us. If we could keep that it would be great and people know what that is."

The Lions, Bulls and, to a lesser extent, Sharks have made great strides on attack this year. There have been a lot more line breaks and offloads in the tackle by South African teams, while most of them also used the maul to score tries.

However, these teams are still making a lot of errors on attack, while they have also leaked quite a lot of tries. This is Erasmus' greatest concern going into the June Test matches.

"I think what has been great is the way our franchises have attacked," the Bok coach said.

"The way the Bulls, Swys with the Lions, the Stormers and everybody has attacked, there is definitely an attacking mindset in the country and unfortunately while we are doing that we are leaking a lot of tries and that is where the balance comes in.

"But yes, our physicality has always been something that we have prided ourselves in - we have to maintain that and we have to bring smartness into our game because at that level physicality won't just win test matches."