Rassie the great innovator
On 24 May, 2018, I wrote that South Africans can prepare for the most radically innovative Springbok squad selections. I wrote that Rassie Erasmus’s first Springbok squad would speak to youthfulness and excellence and also speak beautifully to a transformed landscape because there will be rugby rationale to every selection.
My article added that there has never been a Springbok squad selection as eagerly anticipated - and the result will match the hype. This will be the squad announcement that finally matches intent with action.
Erasmus is a believer in the dynamic of 23 players and how they complement an 80-minute performance.
I knew this because Erasmus and I had spoken at length on many occasions about rugby’s evolvement from 15 to 23 players and the coach’s belief that to play the game effectively and consistently at the highest level for 80 minutes, a coach would need 23 players. “The biggest Test matches,” he said, “are won by 23 players”.
I compared Erasmus to baseball’s pioneer manager Billy Beane. For me Erasmus’s thinking, in terms of how he identified players and how he saw the sport of rugby so differently to others, was like listening to Beane talk about baseball.
If you don’t know the Billy Beane story, get the book, it’s called ‘Moneyball’, and yes Erasmus devoured every word of the book many years ago.
Erasmus is very strategic about his playing assets and how crucial each one is to the overall strategy. One player’s 30 minutes is the making of another player’s 50, is how he summarised his thinking when it comes to finalising who starts and who finishes.
Erasmus and I go back 25 years when it comes to our rugby relationship. I was a young rugby writer when he was a young rugby player. I reported on him when he played for the Springboks and I then got to work with him when I was with the Springboks’ management.
We enjoyed each other’s company, even if he always felt as a player that I backed Stormers captain Bob Skinstad over him when writing up the Bok loose-forward options. He wasn’t wrong and Bob, playing for the Stormers and me being based in Cape Town, certainly influenced my writing. Rassie was with the Cheetahs and Cats and he joked that if he was one of the “Men in Black “Stormers, he’d have got more flattering reviews from me.
It was the one apology I made when we met up on his return from Munster.
“Shan-na-na Tjom,” was his response. “All good and solid.” We spent an entire Saturday afternoon and evening watching all the 2017 November internationals. Former French international Pieter de Villiers, a good friend of Rassie’s, was also there. It was a wonderful afternoon. The kids did their thing and the adults watched rugby, talked rugby and enthused about rugby.
De Villiers, South African-born and raised, would have been the forwards coach for the Springboks under Erasmus but relocated to Paris because of family reasons. The two, on a day that felt like a World Cup tournament done and dusted in 12 hours, spoke with such intent about the Springboks and South African rugby.
Allistair Coetzee was still the coach and Erasmus would be his boss. That is where the breakdown came because Coetzee refused to report to Erasmus. He felt, as the Bok coach, he was his own boss. Erasmus had no issue working with Coetzee because he had worked with him at the Stormers and recommended Erasmus to succeed him as Stormers coach.
Coming back to South Africa for Rassie was about being back home and making a contribution to the well-being of South African rugby. He was a professional rugby coach, but first and foremost if he didn’t succeed he would be fired. It was the nature of sport and that his six-year contract as Director of Rugby would be meaningless if the Springboks weren’t winning and the feeder systems buckled. His excitement, whenever we spoke, was tangible. We had spoken regularly during his time at Munster and I religiously followed the fortunes of Munster and weekly would write something about the impact Erasmus was having in reinventing Munster’s winning ways.
It was a familiar story when it came to Erasmus. He had turned the Cheetahs into domestic champions and revitalised the Stormers into one of the leading Super Rugby teams.
He did it through identifying player strengths and then formulating a game strategy to suit those strengths. It didn’t make for the most flamboyant of spectacles but he turned Newlands into a fortress, where opposition teams didn’t win.
The Stormers would concede the least tries in the competition when Erasmus was in charge and we’ve seen a similar effect with the Springboks. Two years ago they were conceding 27 points a Test.
In 2019, with one Test to go in the year, Erasmus’s Boks are giving up just 11 points a game.
Erasmus, even when at Munster, followed South African rugby closely. He was disappointed in the way the Springboks were playing and in the many defeats, especially against sides like Italy.
He felt the Boks should always be a top three team and one of the powerhouses and he insisted when we spoke that South Africa would always have players good enough to be a world leader.
He acknowledged the player drain to the north, but said the overseas-based player would have to be exceptional, rather than very good, to make a Springbok team and that, where possible, a national coach would want to select South African-based players.
When he did finally get the chance to share with me his powerpoint presentation on how he saw the future of South African rugby and the Springboks’ World Cup campaign, I was convinced the Boks would be a contender in Japan and that South African rugby would see light again.
There was so much logic and thought in what he said and I wrote that there would be a generational shift in the 2018 Springboks and that there would be a collective that spoke to rugby excellence of all colours and cultures.
A year on, and Siya Kolisi, in this morning’s World Cup final against England, will lead the most transformed Springbok team in the history of the game. It is a match 23 that is consistent with everything Erasmus shared with me 18 months ago.
Rassie Erasmus, the player, was at his peak always among the game’s most influential players. A serious foot injury ended his international career prematurely and he was the youngest coach to win a Currie Cup title.
Rassie, the player, is different to Rassie the coach, when it comes to personality in that there is more ownership.
He hasn’t lost his sense of humour and he hasn’t become precious but he certainly has grown up.
I’ve seen so much change in him since he came back from Munster and while the Munster stint was just shy of two years, it was worth 20 years in a cultural education. The young man who left for Munster returned very much a matured man in his thinking and his approach.
The insecurities that played out when he was a player and coaching the Stormers were gone.
He was so much more confident in dealing with the media and he was very at ease when talking about life and about rugby.
The younger Erasmus, like so many players, needed external validation, but the Erasmus who took charge of the Springboks is content that validation comes from within.
Independent on Saturday
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