SA Rugby turns a corner

South Africa Rugby seems set to flourish under Johan “Rassie” Erasmus, and his openness to new ideas and hands on approach to coaching.

Johan “Rassie” Erasmus has been ahead of the game since day one of his appointment this year.

Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby, tells a story that neatly encapsulates this. Alexander says that when Erasmus was on the verge of announcing his first squad as Bok coach, one of the talking points was whom he would name as his captain. 

Erasmus’ bosses were partial to Stormers leader Siya Kolisi, but they were mulling over how to tell the new Bok coach without seeming like the many meddlesome administrators populating South African sport.

Before Alexander broached the subject, Erasmus emailed him to say he would be announcing Kolisi as captain. This has been Erasmus’ approach since his appointment: he has delivered on expectations before they have been expressed.

Erasmus got his job for an unprecedented six-year tenure and off the back of what had the hallmarks of a putsch against his predecessor, Allister Coetzee. Expectations were magnified tenfold in the eyes of a rugby public that smelt a rat.

Questions about transformation were answered emphatically through Kolisi’s appointment as captain, Mzwandile Stick’s return to the Bok coaching team, and the announcement of a squad that was 47% black, which, again, was unprecedented.

Matt Proudfoot – the forwards coach and the remaining link to Coetzee’s tenure – applauded the decision on Kolisi, intimating that Erasmus had answered the question of whether Kolisi “was ready or if we were protecting him too much”.

As calls go, it was one that won Erasmus the support of not only the majority of the country, but also SA Rugby, which is often seen as a bastion of a sport that was emblematic of white supremacy under apartheid.

In 2016, he didn’t want me hands on in the job of attacking coach. He wanted someone who had been there before me to work with me, thinking Allister would be more hands on with the backs while I learned from him.

Stick’s return to the squad is perhaps the most revealing of all Erasmus’ decisions. After his surprise inclusion in Coetzee’s coaching staff in 2016 at Erasmus’ recommendation, the former SA Sevens captain was roundly criticised for being out of his depth. Erasmus bringing him back less than two years later is a bold call.

Stick explains: “In 2016, he didn’t want me hands on in the job of attacking coach. He wanted someone who had been there before me to work with me, thinking Allister would be more hands on with the backs while I learned from him.

“He was honest with me when he told me he still wanted me back and told me he thinks I’ve got the potential, but he would take the attack role himself and consult with guys like [Lions coach] Swys de Bruin. I’m happy to learn from them while I do my thing, which is currently off-the-ball work and individual skills with the players.”

Proudfoot says the Boks’ focus on transformation under Erasmus is a continuation from the Coetzee years: “Rassie’s been very honest about it. It was Allister who first educated me on the transparency needed when dealing with it. He said every player deserves an opportunity when he’s ready, and Rassie has done the same thing. For example, when he picked a S’bu Nkosi, he wasn’t picking a black wing, he was picking a player who’d earned the opportunity. He’s been honest by judging the players on whether they’re good enough or not.

“A lot of white coaches need to be honest and not see transformation as something to work around. They need to do what’s in their hearts because that’s what players respect – there’s no need to hide behind a piece of paper. That’s what Rassie is doing with the franchises – he wants them to reward the players for working and training hard, and not keep saying they’re not ready.”

Because SA Rugby does not centrally contract players, like New Zealand does, for instance, the franchises have tended to do their own thing. This often results in players getting injuries from playing too much, making the Bok team selection highly contingent. The state of relations between the two camps hasn’t been helped by some of the Bok coaches before Erasmus insisting on telling their franchise counterparts how to do their jobs.

But since Erasmus visited them late last year in his capacity as director of rugby and Bok coach-in-waiting to get their buy-in, there has been a marked thawing of relations from the parochialism of the past. He has been sending his assistant coaches to franchise clubs’ training sessions around the country, releasing these assistants to travel abroad with franchise teams, and seconding certain franchise coaches to work with his team in whatever competition the Boks are involved in.

“One of the things he did well was organise the alignment camps [periodic gatherings throughout the Super Rugby season where all the players in contention for Bok places were invited to get a sense of Erasmus’s vision], first to present what he wanted to achieve and getting the franchise coaches and management to also provide their input to understand their challenges,” says Stick. “Sometimes in the past, it was always about what the Springbok coaches wanted. He’s been really smart about that.”

In the past, there’s always been an ‘us and them’ thing. Rassie has worked hard to break that down.

Proudfoot, who is the nearest thing to a neutral in Erasmus’s coaching camp after deciding to stay despite Coetzee’s resignation, agrees with Stick.

“In the past, there’s always been an ‘us and them’ thing. Rassie has worked hard to break that down. It started with the coaching indabas in 2016, where we realised that if we didn’t align our efforts, we would never catch up to New Zealand.”

Even though Erasmus’s official record is played four, won two and lost two, the fact that the Boks beat England, which just last year equalled the All Blacks’ world record 18-match winning streak, speaks volumes for the direction the team is taking.

Proudfoot attributes a lot of the team’s turnaround to how hard Erasmus works: “His work ethic will frighten you. Having played for the Boks, he feels responsible for making sure the team succeeds again.”

This work ethic apparently includes weekly appraisal reports to all the players and being active on his staff’s WhatsApp group while watching Super Rugby games.

“He tells me on a daily basis to rate my pack and where I think they are in the pecking order. And the good thing about those chats over the weekend is that, on Monday, you don’t have to go over that ground again, you hit the ground running,” says Proudfoot.

Since working with Erasmus at the Stormers before he left for SA Rugby and at Irish club team Munster, Proudfoot says he has noticed one main difference in the new coach: “I wouldn’t say he is more open-minded, but when we worked together at the Stormers he had one philosophy, and now he’s more open to different ideas.”

Of the differences between the former and current Bok coaches, Proudfoot says Erasmus is more hands-on: “Allister would empower you, but Rassie gives you guidelines of what he wants … Rassie is very good at looking at the cause of the problem and saying, ‘This is what we need to fix’. He is driven by that process – he never sleeps looking for that advantage.”

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