Rassie Erasmus has the ability to help the Springboks win the World Cup. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix
Back in 2009, Newlands spectators were treated to the curious sight of the visiting Free State team remaining on the field in a huddle at half-time in a Super Rugby match against the Stormers, with coach Naka Drotske having chosen to join the team on the field from the stands rather than address them in the change-room.

Why on earth would he do that?

Drotske fobbed off questions regarding this after the game but the educated speculation was that the Cheetahs coach suspected his change-room was bugged, and the reason he thought this was that the year before he had played under Rassie Erasmus at the Cheetahs, who was now the Stormers coach.

There was also an occasion at Newlands where the Western Province scrum was getting hammered in a match and next thing their props were going off injured to the point where there had to be uncontested scrums. It was subsequently alleged that coach Erasmus had instructed players to fake injuries.

Okay, it sounds like I am being churlish in painting a negative picture of the current Springbok coach, who just last week won the Rugby Championship for South Africa, but rather, I want to illustrate the enquiring mind of Rassie Erasmus that was immature in his early coaching days but has now evolved into one of the finest rugby brains on the planet.

In short, Erasmus has been a plotter and planner par excellence since his days as a player, and if his dalliances in his youth meant he was occasionally economical with the truth, in 2019 he is the complete opposite.

Honesty with all role players in rugby is now Erasmus’ strongest suit. It is almost as if at 46 years of age he has reached enlightenment and understands that playing ducks and drakes, as they quaintly call it in New Zealand, is a waste of time and energy.

An example ... the youthful Erasmus loved playing the game of announcing one team and then having another take the field. In 2019, he announces his team a day earlier (on the Wednesday) than any other international coach.

As a player, Erasmus’ team-mates to a man said that he was one step beyond even his coaches, that he was one of the game’s first “professionals” when the game was still amateur in every way but for the fact that the players were paid.

Gary Teichmann, who captained Erasmus in most of his 36 Tests, once told me Rassie was “ahead of his time” when it came to tactics.

Erasmus broke into the Springbok side in 1997, a time when Teichmann says the players were still getting to grips with professionalism.

“But not Rassie. He was always one step ahead in analysing the opposition. He spent hours each day in the video room with Nick (Mallett). He was calm on and off the field, probably because he had done his homework and had left nothing to chance.

“On the field, he had a very good feel for the game and usually popped up in the right place at the right time.”

That might also have been down to the fact that the Port Elizabeth-raised Erasmus played flyhalf at Hoërskool Despatch before gravitating to flank. No wonder he was a loose forward that, ahead of his time, was adept at nudging chips and grubbers into space.

Former Springbok loosehead prop Robbie Kempson, another who played with Erasmus, has told me that back in the all-conquering days of the 1998 Bok team, openside flank Rassie was at the heart of the team.

“Nothing fazed Rassie because he had done his homework and knew exactly what was coming and how we had to deal with it. His attention to detail was almost ridiculous. We thought he was obsessed!”

Allied to that sharpened focus on what matters in winning rugby games is Erasmus’ incredible ability to identify talent. And perhaps the best example of this is his relationship with a team management member as opposed to a player.

Let’s examine the case study of current Springbok defence coach Jacques Nienaber.

Erasmus first encountered Nienaber when the former was a player and the latter was the team physio at the Cheetahs. Rassie recognised latent potential in Niebaber and when he went from player to coach at the Cheetahs he challenged Nienaber to go beyond his physio duties and take the team warm-ups before training.

Before long he sent Nienaber to the USA to learn about pre-match drills. Then he started educating Nienaber regarding match statistics and then gave him the task of working out how best to defend...

To cut to the chase, Nienaber has now been Erasmus’s chief lieutenant for the best part of two decades and the two have been a package be it at the Cheetahs, Western Province, Munster and the Springboks.

Rassie has further recognised that Nienaber is an unflappable character and is a calming influence on him.

If we look at the Springboks in 2019 under Erasmus, I can see that so much of what is going on now with the Boks has its roots on how he was already seeing the game in his first years as a coach.

Way back, there was a game at Newlands when Province coach Erasmus chose five props on the bench, a startling selection but one he believed would win him the game against a visiting team that was strong in the set scrums. Province won that match convincingly via a set scrum ascendancy.

Also, when the Cheetahs shocked the Bulls in a famous Currie Cup final win in 2005, it was down to the supremacy they had up front. Erasmus had stocked the Cheetahs’ front row with the likes of Os du Randt, Ollie le Roux, CJ van der Linde, Jannie du Plessis and Wian du Preez.

If you look at the current Springbok set up, the cornerstone of the success is exceptional depth at front row. The Boks have two, perhaps three, brilliant front rows. No other country in the world can rival this. And this is not by accident. The design has seen Erasmus recall players such as Vincent Koch and Schalk Brits from overseas while rewarding the Super Rugby form of the likes of Trevor Nyakane and Lizo Gqoboka, whom he has cleverly entangled in competition with stalwarts such as Tendai Mtawarira and Robert Kitshoff.

The result is the key area where rugby is won and lost, the front row exchanges, is for the Boks a seething mix of positive competition.

This is how Rassie coaches. He regards rugby as a simple game that has to be won through solid basics plus a few subtle tricks, be it some tricky variations at the line-outs or, maybe, something different at the breakdowns where he might hold back players from competing to free them for defence only in the next match to flood the breakdowns to force the turnovers; or he will add to a conservative strategy an X-factor player such as Philip Snyman (when at the Cheetahs) or lately Cheslin Kolbe at the Boks.

On the subject of Erasmus coming up with something different for a specific scenario, there was a match between the Sharks and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein that was won by Rassie thanks to ingenuity on his behalf. It was in the early 2000s when Wallabies legend David Campese had a coaching role in Durban and he had ranted in the media that the Erasmus-coached Cheetahs were bereft of imagination and were too conservative in their approach to challenge the Sharks, who were in hot form.

Well the Cheetahs shocked the Sharks by running the ball from the first whistle and scored three tries in the first 15 minutes, from which the Sharks never recovered.

Erasmus’s eye for talent is famously highlighted by his spotting of a certain Pumas youngster by the name of Duane Vermeleun who he pulled in to the Cheetahs from Nelspruit and later transported with him to Western Province. Also, the well-informed in Bloemfontein say that the 2005 Currie Cup victory over the Bulls was to an extent due to coach Erasmus recognising that he needed a counter to Bakkies Botha and he identified EP bruiser Rory Duncan as the answer, and brought him in to do a job.

Then there is, of course, the “disco lights” of Erasmus’s early coaching career. Put simply, the intense young coach wanted to circumvent the process of communicating to the players via walkie-talkie to the water man by telling them what to do in the line-outs via lights from the top of the Free State Stadium, as in red for the front of the line-out, blue for the back, and so on...

Scoff as you might, that kind of left-field thinking by the young Erasmus has matured into the Springbok coach that has given South Africa a wonderful chance of winning Rugby World Cup 2019.

@MikeGreenaway67


Saturday Star