Eighty minutes is all that separates Rassie Erasmus from potential rugby immortality. If the Springboks can get across the line on Saturday and lift the Rugby World Cup for a second consecutive time, they will not only be the world champions but will also hold the record for the most Rugby World Cups in history.
There are many divergent and deeply felt views about the principal architect of South Africa’s rugby fortunes.
In the northern hemisphere, there are some that regard him as a modern day rugby Svengali and their views in this regard may well have been reinforced by the recent victories over both France and England by a single point and against the run of play.
The likes of Warren Gatland and Clive Woodward can barely conceal their distaste for the director of Springbok rugby. His brashness, willingness to engage on social media and daring innovation are anathema to coaches like Gatland. The results that he helped the Springboks to achieve against the likes of the British and Irish Lions and England have only added salt to the wounds.
From a South African perspective, Rassie Erasmus has a folklore quality about him and is widely regarded as a rugby genius who can do no wrong. The “rugby genius” label may be overplayed. It is undoubtedly true that he is an innovator par excellence: the recent deployment of the 7:1 forwards-to-backs ratio on the bench is testimony to this and his results on the rugby field speak for themselves.
However, there have been more recent signs that the rest of the rugby world is catching up. The Springboks have been outmanoeuvred and out-thought by the likes of Ireland, France and England and had it not been for the rub of the green, we may well have been consoling ourselves and looking forward to Australia in 2027.
The reality is that the sheer resilience and grit of the Springbok rugby team has seen them through to the final. It has not been the result of being the better team or the function of cunning strategic thinking. The truth is that the Springbok rugby team is somewhat fortunate to be contesting the final and unless the Springbok management team exhibit some more astute thinking than they have until now, the result in the final could be somewhat one-sided.
Rassie’s genius lies elsewhere. In a country beset by corruption, incompetence and widespread maladministration in virtually every aspect of the public sector, rugby is a beacon of hope that gives a neglected citizenry much-needed inspiration and optimism.
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His unequivocal commitment together with Jacques Nienaber to transformation of South African rugby is the true reflection of what he has achieved. “Transformation” is often simply associated with the racial profile of the team, but in this case, it is so much more.
He has not only transformed South African rugby from the perspective of the merit-based racial demographics of the team and propelled Siya Kolisi’s career as the inspirational captain of the Springboks, but more fundamentally he has broken the mould irretrievably of the legacy of dyed-in-the-wool Springbok rugby coaches.
There is a long and tedious line of Springbok rugby coaches who epitomised the old Springbok rugby mentality that was born in old-fashioned rugby conservatism and brute strength. They were as predictable as their stereotype made them out to be. South African rugby would have ossified if this had been allowed to continue. The likes of John Williams, Rudolf Straeuli, Andre Markgraaf and others epitomised old-fashioned Springbok rugby conservatism. Even more forward-thinking coaches like Nick Mallet, Jake White and Alister Coetzee did not advance the cause of transforming South African rugby in the same way as Erasmus has done.
The new blueprint for South African rugby encapsulates opportunity and forward thinking, while building on traditional values like grit and sheer bloody-minded determination. The fact that apart from Siya Kolisi, other recent captains have included Bongi Mbonambi speaks volumes to this.
Erasmus’s legacy may not ultimately be winning the Rugby World Cup with the Springboks for a second consecutive time, and perhaps the honour of winning four Rugby World Cups will indeed fall to the more consistent All Blacks.
But the combination of his extraordinary rugby IQ with an exceptional emotional quotient means that Erasmus’ real achievement will be taking South African rugby from a place where innovation, creativity and genuine transformation were regarded as heresy, to a place where they have a long-lasting seat at the table. DM