In one of the worst-kept secrets in South African sport, Rassie Erasmus was confirmed as the new coach of the Springboks last week. The announcement came after SA Rugby and Allister Coetzee parted ways not-so-amicably.
Erasmus inherits a team struggling for identity and a job nobody should envy. And he has to wear two hats while he’s at it – coaching and being “Director of Rugby”.
It’s all a bit of a mess, but Erasmus is, as ever, undaunted. His first challenge will be a one-off Test between South Africa and Wales in Washington in early June.
Then the Springboks welcome England for three Tests, beginning in Johannesburg on 9 June.
While SA Rugby’s relationship with coaches isn’t exactly long-term – Erasmus is the 14th coach in the job since readmission – he has been given an unusually long contract of six years.
What went on during those contract negotiations – and whose idea the extended contract is – we might never know. Considering coaches usually only last about two years in the job, optimists might want to believe that there was a bit of input from both sides.
It has become a bit of a cliché to say “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, with that line being tirelessly drawn out by political analysts in the wake of Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to president of the country. But Erasmus will be expected to cook up a ganache rather than a plain old melktert even if he only has the ingredients for a trifle.
That is not to say that we cannot deduce what he might be capable of. He did spend much of his time as a player helping coaches analyse the opposition.
A good “rugby brain” is a phrase you’re likely to see used to describe Erasmus and he certainly hit the right notes during his first dealings as coach with the press last week.
“Alignment” (hello Indaba implementation), adaption, fact-finding missions, intellectual property and involving coaches are all phrases that have cropped up in various interviews with the press.
He also admitted that teams are getting “too street-smart” for the Boks when it comes to “aerial stuff”.
But there is another important part of Erasmus’ language that pricked the ears. Most striking is his take on how the Boks are going to achieve their 50% transformation target in 2019.
While grassroots development and nurturing players from disadvantaged backgrounds remain a massive challenge in levelling the playing field, franchises play a critical role in seeing players through the ranks.
There are more than 60 players of colour currently contracted to South Africa’s franchises (in Super Rugby and the Pro14), but Erasmus seems to be the first person to realise that game time is often an issue for these players.
“Finding the talent is not a challenge. The challenge is hoping those boys will get enough game time so that, when they get to Springbok level, they are fit and in form,” Erasmus was quoted as saying by City Press.
“We have to make a plan. I can tell you that, for me, the most important thing is to make sure the players have game time and deal with situations that put them under pressure. The talent is there and we saw that this past weekend. There are a lot of guys coming through,” he added.
It’s as if somebody has finally cottoned on to tangible research that highlights how box-ticking exercises allow for masking and creating a false impression of the true extent of transformation.
Not baulking at the prospect and immediately offering a solution or suggestion on how to go about achieving this goal is a refreshing change from the usual platitudes offered by those in SA Rugby suits.
Equally intriguing is his support for assistant coach Mzwandile Stick. Stick was, err, given stick for his apparent role in the Springboks’ demise before he was given the boot in the middle of the Coetzee era.
During his brief tenure, the knives were out with some pontificating that the former Sevens star was “out of his depth”.
But Erasmus was quick to quell those hesitations last week.
“People don’t realise that Stick didn’t do attack in the previous set-up; Johann van Graan did. I’m very excited about Stick. People haven’t seen what he can really do,” he said.
“That special thing that the current sevens team have – that work rate and enthusiasm to get into a better position – is what he brings to the table.”
The appointment of new coaches (or presidents) always coincides with a brief honeymoon period, especially if the era that preceded them was grim.
On the face of it, Erasmus certainly talks a good game, with a refreshing honesty not seen often enough in sport.
The proof, though, will be in his ganache. Or maybe a chocolate milk tart. DM
Photo: Rassie Erasmus is announced as Springbok coach during a South African rugby press conference at SuperSport Studios in Randburg, Johannesburg on 1 March 2018 ©Gavin Barker/BackpagePix
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