RasNaber continues to push the boundaries by thinking out of the Boks

RasNaber continues to push the boundaries by thinking out of the Boks
Springbok lock RG Snyman with an offload during the Rugby World Cup 2023 match against Scotland at Orange Vélodrome in Marseille on 10 September. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

Flashing coloured lights and quirky selections are just the latest surprises from a maverick pair of innovators.

When Dick Fosbury jumped over a bar backwards in the high jump in the 1960s, the sporting world was aghast. It was against the spirit of the sport, said the establishment.

Now everyone does it.

When England’s fast bowlers peppered the Australian great Don Bradman with bouncers in what became known as the “bodyline series”, it was decried as being against the spirit of the game. By the 1970s, Australia and the West Indies broke bones and cracked heads with a barrage of fast bowlers and were praised for it.

There are literally dozens of examples of this – from controversial aerodynamics in Formula 1 to increasing downforce to the winged keel on Australia II in the 1983 America’s Cup.

Innovators in sport always start out by bending the existing laws and challenging the “spirit of the sport” before setting a benchmark that others follow.

Gaining an edge

Almost every week it seems, RasNaber, the collective noun for Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, exasperate and confound the rugby establishment. They’ve done it again.

Colour-coded lights from high in the stands? Check. Four scrumhalves chosen in a match-day 23? Check. The duo might be edgy, even mavericks, but at the core they really are innovators.

They don’t accept the status quo. They don’t sit back and bow to the establishment. Instead, they dig into the lawbook and find a way to gain an edge. 

RasNaber introduced the concept of the 6/2 split between forwards and backs, giving rise to the famed Bomb Squad. It was frowned upon in 2019; now almost every top team has done it at some stage.

They took a hooker – Schalk Brits – and made him a flank, and they introduced first-half tactical substitutions. So far, no one has followed that innovation on a regular basis.

The Boks were labelled “boring” when they took tactical kicking to extremes, with forwards forming a chain of protection for the scrumhalf to have ample time to launch a contestable kick. Now every team does it.

The pair carried on testing the limits of the laws with further innovations, such as Erasmus being a water-carrier, essentially to send messages on to the field in real time during the tempestuous 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions.

This year they selected seven forwards on the bench against the All Blacks when Willie le Roux pulled out during the warm-up at Twickenham. As if that wasn’t enough, they then introduced all seven forwards to the game at precisely the same time. Never has rugby seen almost the entire pack substituted out of a game simultaneously.

It led to some hysterical overreaction by some scribes, but also drew admiration from the likes of Eddie Jones, who was, and maybe still is, one of the most innovative coaches in the professional era.

“Tradition maybe says that the bench is 5/3, but that doesn’t mean it’s right,” Jones said after the seven forwards incident at Twickenham.

“If you are going to play a heavy, dominant forward game, why wouldn’t you have more forward players on the bench? I applaud South Africa for being so bold and courageous in the way they want to play. That is great innovation.”

Lighting up

RasNaber continue thinking out of the Boks

The coaching team, with Rassie Erasmus on the right, use a bright light to signal the Boks during their game against Scotland on 10 September during the 2023 Rugby World Cup. (Screenshot: Virgin Media Sport / Youtube)

RasNaber introduced the latest innovations – flashing lights from the coaches’ box against Scotland and now selecting four ­scrumhalves in the 23-man squad to face Romania.

First the lights. Nienaber was quizzed about it after the Boks’ 18-3 victory against Scotland in Marseille. He dead-batted the inquisitor, from the UK, knowing what was coming.

Nienaber said it had been done before, that it was too noisy to send proper messages by radio and that it wasn’t against the rules. I imagine World Rugby’s laws department has been poring over the fine print.

The inclusion of four scrumhalves in the Rugby World Cup 2023 squad was perplexing, and although all four – Cobus Reinach, Faf de Klerk, Grant Williams and Jaden Hendrikse – will play against Romania, it still remains slightly mysterious.

And, right on cue, there has been social media grumbling that the Boks are somehow disrespecting the game and Romania by choosing four halfbacks, with two of them out of position.

Having Williams on the field in any position should be a rugby fan’s dream. That’s the beauty of innovation. You don’t know you want it until someone makes it. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 6 September 2023.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    Well, if we are to believe UK rugby journos, they picked four scrum halves because the Boks only ever win because they are bigger and heavier than everyone else.

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