RWC 2023 ANALYSIS
Road to Rugby World Cup final: How Erasmus and Nienaber rebuilt the Springboks
The Rugby World Cup 2023 final marks the end of a six-year journey for a special group of players and coaches.
It’s tempting to talk up the final at the Stade de France as a match that will define an era.
Several players and coaches will move on at the conclusion of this tournament. They have spoken at length about their desire to finish this chapter on a record-breaking high.
If the Boks beat the All Blacks in the decider on 28 October, they will become the first South African side to win back-to-back World Cup titles, and only the second Test group, after the great All Blacks team triumphed in 2011 and 2015.
It’s worth considering how the Boks find themselves in this position, and how they have changed the way rugby is played and supported in SA over the past six years.
Although it’s important that they push on and claim another title in France, there’s ample evidence to suggest that what Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, Siya Kolisi and others have built has paved the way for a more inclusive and prosperous future.
Uniting the country
In the hours leading up to the final, Erasmus and Nienaber will be reminding the players about what they are playing for, and how a thriving multicultural team has the power to unite a largely divided country.
If the players don’t focus on their individual jobs, the team won’t win matches. And if the team doesn’t win matches, the Boks won’t win trophies or inspire the nation.
Many laughed at Erasmus when he laid out his ambitious plans and goals. But as time progressed, the method in his supposed madness became clearer.
The Boks slumped to several record defeats across the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and were ranked seventh in the world when Erasmus and Nienaber took over the reins in 2018.
Erasmus’ Boks lost half of their matches in that first season, but beat England in a fiercely contested series, and went on to claim a rare victory against the All Blacks on New Zealand soil.
The Boks continued to build in 2019, and made a further statement when they won their first Rugby Championship title in 10 years. They rode that momentum into the World Cup in Japan, and went on to hammer a more fancied England 32-12 in the final.
Rebounding after Covid
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted their plans to progress in 2020, as they were forced to miss an entire season of Test rugby.
Nevertheless, they came together to win a particularly intense series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021. Though they battled for consistency in the subsequent Rugby Championship, they started to hit their stride in 2022, securing a record win against the All Blacks at home, as well as drought-ending results against Australia and England abroad.
Ireland and France travelled to the World Cup as joint favourites for the title. The Boks fired a big shot, however, when they romped to another record win against New Zealand, this time in the World Cup warm-ups.
A loss to Ireland in the pool stages did little to stall their momentum. The Boks edged hosts France and then England en route to the final.
As things stand, they are the No 1-ranked side in the world and will go into the decider against the All Blacks with belief rather than hope that another win is within reach.
Transforming SA’s thinking
Erasmus’ decision to name Kolisi as his captain in 2018 was inspired. A multiracial crowd greeted South Africa’s first black Test skipper – as well as the most transformed Bok side in history – at Ellis Park for the first Test of that series against England.
It was the start of an important chapter in SA rugby history, when fans from all races and cultures came together to support a team that represented the whole nation.
Although SA Rugby continued to enforce racial targets, the players themselves spoke about how the culture had changed, and how “transformation” was no longer a word laced with negative connotations.
The “Stronger Together” campaign began to gather momentum.
The Boks coaches and players have continued to walk the transformation talk in the ensuing six years, and the shift in mindset has had a positive impact on the results.
Some criticised Erasmus for the “political decision” to appoint Kolisi, but the player has gone on to become one of the game’s leading loose forwards, and ranks among the finest captains to have worn the green and gold jersey.
More black players have been given opportunities, and not just at wing or fullback – as was often the case in the period beforehand.
Centre Lukhanyo Am has emerged as one of the best players in the world – although he has not featured at this World Cup because of an injury setback. Manie Libbok has spearheaded a more attacking approach since getting his chance at No 10 last year, hooker Bongi Mbonambi has led the side when Kolisi has left the field at this tournament, and prop Ox Nché has emerged as one of the stars of the 2023 tournament.
The suggestion that these players haven’t been selected on merit – and unfortunately there are still some who continue to bang this drum – is baseless.
Eye to the future
When he took the top job in 2018, Erasmus hoped that the Boks would win the 2019 World Cup. Since then, he has admitted that the plan was to rebuild the team and structures with the aim of peaking at the 2023 showpiece.
Erasmus and Nienaber have used more than 100 players across the Bok and South African A sides since 2018, and have blooded 36 new players at Test level. They’ve rotated the squad regularly in order to manage workloads of grizzled veterans and to provide younger players with experience.
It’s a strategy that has paid off handsomely in the short and long term. We may see further benefits down the line as less established players – the gifted Canan Moodie, for example – receive more responsibility in the next four-year cycle.
Few will be looking beyond the 2023 World Cup final, though. It’s thanks to the careful planning and forward-thinking approach of Erasmus and his coaches that the Boks are in such a strong position to win on 28 October. No one will deny that there’s something incredible to be gained by finishing on the right side of the result.
And yet, when you consider what is happening in South Africa right now, and how so many people are coming together to back this team, you’re inclined to believe that the most important job has already been done. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.