OPINION: Lions will find Springboks in rude health thanks to Rassie
In 1996, ill health saw Kitch Christie pass the reins on to Andre Markgraaff who (after being disgraced when a racist remark he made went public) resigned and was succeeded by the inexperienced Carel du Plessis for the '97 series against the Lions.Carel should never have been appointed and the momentum generated by the ’95 World Cup win was lost and the Boks lost a series to a fairly average Lions team.
It was a different story when the Lions returned in 2009. The team that Jake White had built to win the 2007 World Cup was preserved by incoming coach Peter de Villiers and while there was indifferent success for the Boks in 2008, 2009 was one of the best ever years in Bok history, with the Boks winning the Tri-Nations - including three consecutive victories over the All Blacks - and the series against a very strong Lions outfit.
Next year, the Lions are scheduled to return once more and they will find Springbok rugby in rude health thanks to the legacy of Rassie Erasmus. He carefully rebuilt and transformed the Springboks after some lean years and the structures this perfectionist has put in place should ensure the Boks sustain the excellence they displayed in Japan, particularly with Erasmus ensuring continuity by appointing his assistant last year, Jacques Nienaber, as his successor as head coach.
When White he took over the Boks after the shambles of the 2003 World Cup he made the extravagant promise to the players that they would win the World Cup four years later.
The fulfilment of that promise, quite frankly, was down to the coach’s relentless perseverance, some would say rank stubbornness - Jake assembled a core of players for his very first match in charge and stuck with them through thick and thin, and there was plenty of the latter. Nine of the players that White picked for his first match in charge in 2004 started in the World Cup final in Paris.
Jake immediately won the Tri-Nations in 2004; 2005 was a mediocre year and then 2006 was just short of a disaster. The Boks lost to France, Ireland, England, twice to Australia (including the 49-0 humiliation in Brisbane) and twice to New Zealand. And twice the coach’s neck was on the line that year. He was first saved when the Boks beat the All Blacks 21-20 in Rustenburg (he would have been fired had they lost) and then on the end-of-year -after White had been called back to South Africa for discussions with his employers at Saru - when the Boks beat England in their second Test against them.
The very same Bok line-up that had been so poor in 2006 flourished in France the next year and boy did Jake White have the last laugh. He had stuck to his guns and eventually reaped the handsomest of dividends.
And 12 members of the team that won the final against England in Paris started in the second Test that clinched the series against the Lions two years later at Loftus Versfeld.
In 1995, Rassie was a 22-year-old flanker playing for Free State, the team he would coach in 2005 to their first Currie Cup title since 1976. It was just his second year in coaching (after retiring as a player in 2003) and his first crack at the Currie Cup. it was only a question of time before he would coach the Boks.
Apart from the legacy of a contented, successful team, Rassie’s commitment to transforming the Springbok side is highly commendable. In the Boks’ 2015 World Cup semi-final defeat to the All Blacks, Heyneke Meyer started with three black players and had one among his substitutes. In last year’s final, Rassie doubled that number in both respects, including, of course, our first black captain.