CAPE TOWN – Does SA Rugby, and by extension the Springboks, need Rassie Erasmus?
When the email came through announcing the former loose forward’s appointment, at 11.32am on Friday, the subject line from SA Rugby wasn’t exactly inspiring: “Erasmus returning to fill rugby development void.”
That is very different to his official title – director of rugby.
What wasn’t clear in the press release was whether Bok head coach Allister Coetzee would have to report to Erasmus, with SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux stating that Coetzee’s position “remains unchanged”, adding: “Allister has done a great job to turn the Springboks around this season and I can categorically put to rest any idea that he is being replaced as Springbok coach.”
Rugby supporters have long cried out for South Africa to follow New Zealand’s example and have an overall vision that is geared towards making the All Blacks successful.
That involves central contracting, a uniform style of play – and with that goes a standard level of fitness and conditioning for each position – ensuring that each Super Rugby team are of similar strength, and that the top 150-180 players in the country get regular game time.
That has seldom been the case locally, with provincialism still deep-seated and some unions contracting too many talented players who hardly turn out at Super Rugby level, when they could’ve been used by other teams instead.
Coetzee and SA Rugby have taken a few significant steps towards that achieving a similar set-up through their indabas at the end of last year, as well as the buy-in of the six franchise coaches to play a more attacking brand, get the fitness levels up, and accommodate the needs of the Boks with regards to game time and resting of top players.
Of course, a lot can still be achieved in that, especially by “up-skilling” weaker teams such as the Southern Kings and Cheetahs (and even the Bulls!) with better planning, skills development, defensive organisation and being more “streetwise” on the field, especially away from home.
That is where Erasmus’ “intellectual property” could be valuable, with his attention to detail and reputation for resembling a mad scientist in a lab who can concoct the most innovative ideas, like when he suggested to then-Blitzboks coach Paul Treu to use a maul in sevens rugby!
So, the 44-year-old Erasmus is certainly much more than just the “DJ on the roof” from his time at the Cheetahs. His time spent with Munster in Ireland would’ve expanded his world view, and he would be a better coach for the experience, and all of that would certainly strengthen the various SA national teams.
But, how hands-on will he exactly be with the Springboks? Will he be – as has been rumoured in the past few months – the de facto Bok coach, with Coetzee taking a step aside?
That may have been the case had the nightmare of 2016 continued over the last three weeks against France. Coetzee was really close to losing his job last December following the embarrassing loss to Italy in Florence, and the worst ever return of eight defeats in 12 Tests in a calendar year.
Some Saru bigwigs had had enough and wanted Coetzee out, while others felt that he should be given a second chance due to a number of mitigating factors such as his late appointment, injuries and an inexperienced backline coach in Mzwandile Stick.
Coetzee survived the axe, and made the mental leap to embrace the Lions’ attacking template and give players such as Elton Jantjies and Warren Whiteley the freedom to call the shots on the field.
It paid off handsomely, and with an improved defensive effort and selecting in-form players, things are looking up for the Boks again ahead of the Rugby Championship.
Of course they are far from the finished product, and still a long way off getting close to the All Blacks, but there has been an upward curve in every respect.
Coetzee has been around in rugby for a long time, and has shown he is able to absorb the pressure of the white-hot cauldron of Test rugby. He has achieved success at Super Rugby with the Stormers, reaching a final and a number of semi-finals and playoffs, as well as two Currie Cup titles.
Coetzee was part of Jake White’s World Cup-winning team management, no matter what anybody may say about Eddie Jones’ magical touch with the Bok backline in 2007.
Erasmus battled with the Cheetahs in Super Rugby, won a single Currie Cup title outright and shared another, and his best finish with the Stormers was fifth in 2008.
He quit the head-coaching role after the 2009 season and handed it over to his assistant Coetzee, and was given a new role of senior professional coach at Western Province – a director of rugby, in effect – before joining SA Rugby in 2012 as the high-performance manager.
So, with all that considered, does SA Rugby, and by extension the Springboks, need Rassie Erasmus? Yes in the first instance, but he cannot call the shots at the Boks when he is not the head coach.
And SA Rugby shouldn’t create a situation where Erasmus is Coetzee’s boss, as he is not qualified for such a role…