Rassie Erasmus, pre his first Test squad selection, spoke of the type of character he wanted to define the Springboks.
He wanted selfless players. He wanted players who cared about the jersey and cared about the result. He also wanted players who cared about each other.
Springbok coach Erasmus wanted players who had hunger to succeed but also had the strength of mind to rise from those damaging blows that often come in a player’s first season of Test rugby.
Erasmus sought out intelligent players; those with functional intelligence about the game and with an enthusiasm about how they believed it could be played better.
He didn’t want restriction in the make-up of his players.
He would provide the playing template and the basic structure but within that structure the players had to know that the only failure would be if they failed to believe in their natural ability.
“In those early sessions I did with players from all the different franchises, I emphasised that there had to be joy in being a Springbok and that the joy would come from the effort of each player and squad member,” said Erasmus.
“I said teams are defined by the collective character of each player’s desire to work harder for his teammate. Players were going to miss tackles and make mistakes on attack, so the response to one player not getting it right in a particular situation became the responsibility of the next guy.
“The great rugby teams are defined by their ability to defend and to scramble on defence. Those teams of the last decade who have dominated have not done it exclusively through brilliant attack. So much has been down to what they did without the ball.
“I challenged each player to challenge himself to be that guy who gets it right when his team-mate doesn’t. If each one of the players had that mindset then we would become a team whose strength would be in the collective and not be reliant on individuals or individualism.”
Lions winger Aphiwe Dyantyi made an immediate impression on Erasmus.
“He has got X-Factor. He’s got something about him,” Erasmus told me after his first session with the Lions players.
“There’s a hunger to be better, there’s a work ethic and there’s intelligence. He’s a smart young man with the mind to go with the physical attributes. He will definitely play for the Springboks this year.”
Erasmus was true to his word and Dyantyi played every minute of the England three-Test series.
He scored tries, scrambled on defence and had a disregard for his own health in taking contact.
His chase of kicks often turned an indifferent kick into a very good one. He worked to get into positions on defence where no one would have been the wiser had he not put in such an effort.
He made mistakes in coming off his wing defensively in the Test series against England.
He misread defensive situations and at times looked lost.
Erasmus, defence coach Jacques Nienaber and attack coach Swys de Bruin continued to encourage the qualities of his attack and focused on improving his understanding of defence.
“Aphiwe’s a very good one-on-one tackler," said De Bruin, who doubles up as Lions coach and Bok assistant coach.
“He had to get comfortable with the defensive system the Boks used and also the difference in Test rugby to what he had known.
“There was never a doubt he would improve with each Test. He is the type of player who learns from his mistakes and works harder to minimize them.”
Erasmus was insistent that Dyantyi would get game time.
“The only way he could arrive at the 2019 World Cup with Test match experience was if I trusted him with game time. The key was to make sure that he had experience in a player like Willie le Roux at fullback,” he said.
“Aphiwe and Bok winger S’bu Nkosi (playing in their first Tests) were given the comfort that they would have an old head talking them through the game, educating them and adding to the collective of a back three.”
The trio were good against England in the first two Tests and Le Roux and Dyantyi were huge in the stunning 36-34 win against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
Dyantyi scored a brace that showcased his pace, swerve and side step. Le Roux was equally effective as a creator.
Defensively, though, the two chased everything and shut down so many All Blacks linebreaks because of an improved defensive understanding.
Erasmus beams when he reflects on the difference defensively in Dyantyi against England and against the All Blacks.
“It’s about game time and fronting the mistakes, acknowledging them and then being prepared to learn about how to fix them.
“He’s a quality young man with so much potential as a Test player.”