Bongi Mbonambi believes that the Springboks’ transformation over the past two seasons is down to Rassie Erasmus’ honest and open player management approach. JON CARDINELLI in Tokyo reports.
Rock bottom. That’s where the Boks and South African rugby were two years ago after they suffered yet another loss to Wales in Cardiff.
2016 was a nightmare. The Boks sustained historic losses to Ireland, Argentina and Italy. They also copped record hidings at the hands of the All Blacks and Wales.
There was more pain in the post, though, as 2017 witnessed a 57-0 humiliation in Albany as well as 38-3 capitulation in Dublin. By the end of that tour, the world was ready to mourn the death of a once-proud rugby nation.
In a matter of months, however, newly appointed director of rugby Rassie Erasmus managed to revive the ailing entity. Erasmus took the reins as head coach and managed to score a landmark victory in New Zealand. A year later, he steered the Boks to their first major title in 10 years.
Fast forward to the present, where the Boks are one win away from featuring in a World Cup final. If the Boks beat Wales in Yokohama this Sunday, they will face England or the All Blacks in the decider.
A lot has been said and written about Erasmus over the past 18 months. He’s been described as a technical genius and has been duly credited for his drive to get all of the South African rugby teams moving in the same direction.
The Bok players have used every available opportunity to praise Erasmus and the manner in which he’s turned this team around. On Tuesday, Mbonambi, who was part of the side that struggled in 2016 and 2017, as well as Matt Proudfoot, who was on Alllister Coetzee’s coaching staff, spoke about the biggest changes over the past 18 months.
‘Rassie has made a massive difference,’ Mbonambi began. ‘He’s made decisions that have influenced the whole nation.
‘He’s a guy who has an honest opinion about each and every individual player. He’s not the type of coach to do things behind closed doors; he will do things openly in front of the whole team.
‘The players have more respect for someone like that. When you have a coach like that, you have more freedom to go out there and express yourself.
‘You can be yourself. He doesn’t put you in a box. That’s been the outstanding thing about this team.’
Erasmus has stated from the outset that transformation is one of the team’s primary goals. Within the side, however, there’s a feeling that every player has been picked on merit. The results certainly suggest that South Africa are doing something right.
‘To me and everyone in this team, it doesn’t really matter in terms of your skin colour or where you come from,’ Mbonambi explained. ‘Rassie will pick a guy to do a job and to work hard.
‘Previous coaches would go the route of picking someone who has been there for years, even though you could see that the player was no longer pulling his weight. Now you get picked by the work that you do and how you execute.’
The Boks have relied heavily on their forwards and defence over the course of this World Cup campaign. While their style of play has been criticised by some, the Boks believe that their plan will improve their chances of winning the tournament.
‘We’ve come into this tournament with a very specific plan, to play to South Africa’s strengths,’ said Proudfoot. ‘When you get alignment and a collective buy-in to a plan, as we have done, you can be very, very powerful.
‘That’s been the big change over the past two years, the mindset that Rassie has created across the group. He’s empowered individuals to take ownership of their roles and to play the South African way.
‘The players have picked up some confidence now and it’s important that they go out and execute against Wales this Sunday.’
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