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Rassie Erasmus hints at possible willingness to coach E...

South Africa

SA RUGBY

Rassie interview: ‘South Africa has my heart but coaching England would be amazing’

South Africa’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus. (Photo: Johan Pretorius / Gallo Images)

Rassie Erasmus’ exclusive interview with an English newspaper published on 6 and 7 March gave the impression he was testing the mood about the possibility of coaching England.

Rassie Erasmus has suggested that he may take the England coaching reins after the 2023 World Cup. The very suggestion of his defection prompts uncomfortable questions about the future of the Springboks and indeed a South African rugby system that remains in transition.

Few people believed that Erasmus was the answer to South Africa’s myriad problems back in 2018. People laughed when he said that the Boks – ranked seventh in the world at that stage – could turn things around and win the 2019 World Cup.

Some were spitting with rage when the director of rugby was handed a six-year mandate to resurrect the South African rugby system. Jokes and memes flooded social media after SA Rugby announced that the director of rugby would double as the Bok head coach – as if Erasmus had appointed himself and would, in the event of poor results, fire himself too.

The theme continued in those early-2018 press conferences, with some reporters attempting to use Erasmus’s catchphrases about alignment and intellectual property against him. Few people believed in what he was selling, and even fewer believed that SA Rugby had made the right choice to back a director of rugby for an unprecedented six-year period.

Fast forward to the present, where the man himself has suggested – via a wide-ranging interview with a British newspaper – that he might be off to England at the end of 2023.

Erasmus: the architect of SA rugby’s revival

By this point, all and sundry – even those who doubted and dismissed him initially – will recognise Erasmus as the architect of the South African rugby revival. He has made a material difference at every level of the game.

On his watch, the Boks have won the World Cup, a Rugby Championship title, a series against the British & Irish Lions and have reached the top of the World Rugby rankings.

For the first time, a South African coach has backed a black African – Siya Kolisi – to lead the Test side. The national team has transformed to better reflect the country’s demographics. The rate of transformation has improved significantly at the lower levels.

Apart from implementing succession plans at national level, Erasmus has rolled out strategies and systems to boost teams across the various divisions. He has also employed key personnel and initiatives with the aim of reviving the women’s game.

In 2018, some questioned whether Erasmus deserved a six-year contract. In 2022, however, it’s hoped that SA Rugby will lock the director into the position well beyond the 2023 World Cup.

Some might suggest that he has done more than enough for the game in this country, and that he deserves some leeway to explore different challenges and opportunities in future.

But with South African rugby moving to Europe and the global rugby community bracing for massive changes from 2025 onwards, SA Rugby needs a man of Erasmus’ particular skills now more than ever.

 Exclusive interview: Why now?

Why is this a pressing concern at this stage? Why indeed.

The Daily Mail ran an exclusive two-part interview with the South African director of rugby on 6 and 7 March, 2022. Erasmus spoke to the publication about the ill-tempered 2021 Lions series, his 62-minute video analysis of the refereeing performance in the first Test, and the 12-month ban he copped from World Rugby. Erasmus was provided with the chance to reflect on a massive moment in his coaching career.

Those who know him will vouch for the fact that Erasmus is a decent guy who has a peerless passion for the game. That part of the man is well represented across the two-part interview.

Those who have covered Erasmus’ coaching career since his days at the Cheetahs in the mid-2000s, however, will know that he doesn’t put himself into the media spotlight without a good reason.

Last year, Erasmus criticised an abject refereeing performance in the first Test to highlight the declining officiating standards and to draw attention away from his own team. His methods were widely criticised and his reputation took a hit, but he was willing to accept these consequences for the sake of his charges.

Perhaps the two part-interview with a British publication will go a long way toward improving his public image outside of South Africa. Then again, perhaps Erasmus agreed to a rare one-on-one interview with the aim of getting another message or two across.

The England head coach question

What was interesting to read from a South African point of view was his comment about the English rugby community not liking him enough to make him head coach. He also suggested that South Africans might baulk at the idea of him coaching another country.

At the same time, he openly wondered if attitudes might change in future. The implication was that his appetite for the role might change too.

“I don’t think the English people would ever want me there now,” Erasmus told the Daily Mail. “Maybe I am wrong. I hope I am wrong.

“Would I coach another country? If my own people were cool with it and the other country’s people were cool with it then why not? South Africa has my heart but coaching England would be amazing because I think they can win.”

More and more South Africans leave the country every year to pursue opportunities abroad – and not just in the rugby industry. Erasmus would be mad not to explore a role overseas that offers a new challenge and – exchange rate of not – a lot more money.

England would be lucky to secure Erasmus’ services. That said, you have to wonder why Erasmus has positioned himself – through his comments in the interview – as a potential successor to Eddie Jones at this stage.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that England are struggling in the current Six Nations tournament. There is a lot of talk about who should replace Jones in the coming months or when the Australian’s contract expires at the end of 2023. It’s a good time to plant a seed.

Job in South Africa is far from done

Erasmus was given a six-year contract in 2018 because the systems, as well as the national team, required rebuilding. Since then, the Boks have won several major trophies, yet problems remain at the franchise and provincial levels. The greater job is far from done.

Erasmus has worked hard to revive the women’s game, and has appointed former Ireland star Lynne Cantwell to head up the programme. While some ground has been made at domestic and national level over the past two years, it will be some time yet before the women’s game in South Africa warrants comparison to that of England and New Zealand.

A number of long-term plans have been implemented by Erasmus and his lieutenants, and one would hope that he sticks around to see them through. It’s not yet clear who will take the reins as director of rugby in 2024 if he opts against renewing his contract. Who else but Erasmus is equipped to navigate South African rugby during an important period in the game’s history?

Navigating SA Rugby into brave new world

The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers have already entered the United Rugby Championship, and will compete in the European Cup competitions from next season onwards.

From 2025, the Boks may feature in a revamped Six Nations tournament and the structure of the global season may undergo a necessary change.

It’s something that Erasmus addressed in the recent interview. He went as far to say he would “love to see South African in the Six Nations”.

The writer Nik Simon made an important point thereafter. Erasmus is the first high-profile rugby figure to support the idea of South Africa joining the northern-hemisphere tournament.

A number of former players and coaches, from the controversial Sir Clive Woodward to the erudite former Lions captain Sam Warburton, have opposed the proposal.

Again, this is perhaps another reason for Erasmus having spoken to a British publication. It’s important that a heavy-hitter from South Africa highlights the benefits of an expansion.

Daily Maverick understands that the proposal to add South Africa to the Six Nations roster continues to be discussed. A couple of sources have confirmed that SA Rugby’s partnership with CVC Capital Partners, the equity fund that has purchased significant stakes in the Six Nations, England’s Rugby Premiership and the URC, may influence the final decision.

It would be deeply ironic if Erasmus – the man who masterminded the Boks’ win over England in the 2019 World Cup final, and who played a part in taking South African rugby to Europe – ended up coaching England against the Boks in the 2025 Six Nations.

SA Rugby has a lot on its plate at present, but the national body would do well to lock Erasmus into that director of rugby role for the foreseeable future. The Boks, and the game in South Africa, still need him. DM

 

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