Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi have led the Springboks on the road to redemption, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Remember when the Springboks were the whipping boys and South African rugby was little more than a bad joke? In 2016 we witnessed historic losses to Ireland, Argentina and Italy. A year later, critics at home and abroad lamented the loss of a fearsome physical aura in the wake of record defeats to the All Blacks and Ireland.
You didn’t need to open a newspaper or to log on to a rugby website to see that something was profoundly wrong. The limp and rudderless performances spoke volumes. The players were patently uncertain about their roles and the game plan was a shambles. Worst of all, there didn’t appear to be any clear solution to South African rugby’s myriad problems.
Expectations were tempered when Rassie Erasmus replaced Bok coach Allister Coetzee in early 2018. Many felt that it would take four to five years to revive the Boks to the point where they could challenge the better teams, let alone push for a major title. The hole in which South African rugby found itself was that dark and that deep.
SA Rugby magazine interviewed Erasmus shortly before the start of the 2018 Test season. When I arrived at the SA Rugby offices, I was asked to wait for the Bok coach at reception. While I waited, I noticed the largely empty trophy cabinet, which hadn’t housed a world title since 2007 or a Sanzaar trophy since 2009. I wondered how much longer South Africa would wait for another trophy of consequence.
When I got the chance to chat to Erasmus, however, he was optimistic. He outlined his plan for the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. He said that transformation was just as important to him as results and player development. He truly believed that the Boks could tick all of these boxes and turn things sooner rather than later.
The Boks were ranked seventh in the world at that stage. South African rugby was battling to secure sponsors and if television viewership figures and crowd attendances were true indicators, fans were losing interest at an alarming rate. While Erasmus came into the job with an impressive track record – and a wealth of new knowledge following an 18-month stint at Munster – it was felt that nothing short of a miracle could extract the Boks from the mire.
Fast forward to the present. The Boks have finished the 2019 season with an unprecedented double: the World Cup and Rugby Championship titles. Erasmus has been named World Rugby Coach of the Year and Pieter-Steph du Toit Player of the Year. The Boks, aside from winning the Team of the Year accolade, have climbed to No 1 in the official rankings for the first time in a decade.
The trophy cabinet at the SA Rugby HQ has never looked as good. Thanks to Erasmus – and another miracle man in captain Siya Kolisi – the nation is behind the team once more. The future of the game in the country has never looked so bright.
Honest, humble and pragmatic, Erasmus has often spoken about the role that luck has played in his team’s success. More should be made, however, about Erasmus’ attention to detail as well as the players’ outstanding execution of a simple yet brutally effective strategy. On all but two occasions in 2019, the Boks played themselves into a winning position and then landed the killer blow. There should be no doubt regarding their status as world champions or their coach’s status as the best in the business.
One has to remember what Erasmus said and did at the start of the season to truly appreciate how this team was prepared to peak. Emphasis was placed on conditioning in early 2019. Intense fitness camps were staged before, during and after the Rugby Championship. The Boks opted to fly to Japan three weeks before their first World Cup match in an attempt to adapt to the energy-sapping heat and humidity.
Erasmus’ bold and innovative selection strategy was the key to the team’s success across a World Cup tournament that spanned seven gruelling weeks. The Bok coach first introduced this policy in the Rugby Championship when he picked a side comprising fringe players and overseas-based stars for the opener against Australia in Johannesburg. Two days before the Boks faced the Wallabies, Erasmus sent his first-choice players to New Zealand to prepare for the subsequent game against the All Blacks.
Erasmus explained the ‘A’ side needed sufficient time to prepare and acclimatise ahead of the toughest game of the Rugby Championship campaign. The gamble paid off, with the ‘B’ side scoring a bonus-point win against Australia and the ‘A’ side showing remarkable resolve to fire late and snatch a draw in New Zealand.
Two weeks later, Erasmus picked his strongest side for the Rugby Championship decider in Argentina. The Boks hammered the Pumas via an approach that would be used later in the World Cup playoffs. The nation started to believe that the Boks – who were at that stage not among the favourites to win the World Cup – may well cause a big upset in Japan.
Erasmus could have gone the conservative route and picked a strong side for the subsequent friendly against Argentina in Pretoria. That would have ensured that the team maintained their winning momentum before heading to Japan. Instead, the coach stuck to his plan to rotate his team on a weekly basis and keep the majority of his squad match-fit. While a side comprising second- and third-choice players battled for synergy in a narrow win against Argentina, Erasmus got what he wanted from the exercise.
Erasmus was tested again in the wake of the 23-13 loss to the All Blacks in the World Cup opener. That result didn’t stop him, though, from pushing on with his plan to back the ‘B’ side for the subsequent game against Namibia. By the time the pool stage had concluded, each player in the squad had enjoyed a decent amount of game time and was not short on match fitness.
It was during the pool phase of the tournament that the concept of the ‘Bomb Squad’ was born. When Erasmus started to favour six forwards among the reserves the nickname took on a more explosive meaning. The starting pack certainly made an impact at the set pieces, collisions and breakdowns in the playoffs. It was in the latter stages of a contest, however, where the Boks blew away their opponents with a relentless physical assault.
There was a lot of criticism regarding the Boks’ approach in the buildup to the semi-final and final. Erasmus and the players blocked out the noise and persisted with their brutally effective forward-oriented strategy. A weaker man may have been swayed by public opinion in that situation – and may have regretted it in the wake of a loss. Erasmus and his charges stuck to their guns, though, and reaped the ultimate reward.
Who could have predicted the Boks, as the seventh-ranked team in early 2018, would go on to beat England by 20 points in the 2019 World Cup final? Given what transpired in 2016 and 2017, few would have been shocked if the Boks went down in the semi-final. On the other hand, Erasmus’ careful planning and bold selection policies certainly increased the likelihood of this story reaching a fairytale climax.
The Boks would not have won the World Cup without a strong skipper, or indeed a strong group of leaders, executing the game plan on the pitch. Again, one has to go back and look at the decisions taken by Erasmus in early 2018 and across the 2019 season to appreciate how Siya Kolisi found himself in a position to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on 2 November 2019.
The decision to appoint Kolisi as captain before the series against England in June 2018 brought the nation – or at least the South African rugby community – together. Those of us who were at Ellis Park for the first Test will testify to the unique energy in the crowd when Kolisi – the first black African captain in history – led the most diverse Bok side ever on to the field.
More than a year later, Erasmus spoke about the pressure that Kolisi experienced during that England series. The Bok coach admitted that he had underestimated the burden on the young man’s shoulders as well as the toll it would take on his performance. Kolisi admitted that it took him some time to adjust to the responsibility and to regain his edge. His leadership and ability to unite and inspire the team was never in question, though. This point was made by several players in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup final against England.
‘Siya’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders in terms of the role as captain and with regard to the makeup of our country,’ veteran flank Francois Louw said. ‘It’s a role he’s grasped fully. I’ll never forget the first thing he did as captain was to encourage those around him to support him and help him lead.
‘Self-awareness is a fantastic trait for a leader. You find out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then you make sure that you surround yourself with people who are wiser than you in areas. It’s a recipe for success. Siya is very aware of that, and he’s led with great example and with great courage.’
Beast Mtawarira, who won 117 Test caps and has featured at three World Cups, also described Kolisi’s unique style of leadership as a key ingredient to South Africa’s success.
‘What Siya has achieved is remarkable,’ said Mtawarira. ‘For a young kid from Zwide to rise above his circumstances, to become a Springbok captain and then to lead the way he has … it’s just inspirational. South Africans from all walks of life can learn a lot from this. We’re all very proud of him.’
Erasmus used four captains over the course of the 2019 season. While Kolisi was fighting his way back from a serious knee injury, Eben Etzebeth led the side against Australia while Duane Vermeulen took the reins in the Rugby Championship clashes against New Zealand and Argentina. Schalk Brits, who was brought into the squad for his experience as much as his explosive ability, was tasked with leading the side against the Pumas in Pretoria.
The leadership group continued to share the load through the World Cup. Kolisi resumed the captaincy for the big pool games and the playoffs, while Brits led the side in less-demanding clashes against Namibia and Canada. As Erasmus said, the presence of so many good leaders in the squad allowed the coaches to manage Kolisi carefully on his comeback from injury. By the playoffs, the flanker had regained his best form.
When Kolisi was asked to speak about his journey at the final captain’s press conference on the eve of the final, he took the opportunity to praise the likes of Vermeulen, Brits, Handre Pollard and several others for sharing the responsibility. The statement was a testament to his humble nature as well as the team culture that’s developed since Erasmus took charge in 2018.
A collective effort got the Boks over the line in Japan. The point was often made by the coaches and players that the team would not have prevailed if not for the support of the nation back home. That said, one has to wonder if the Boks would have succeeded without men like Erasmus and Kolisi leading the charge.
NATION OF WINNERS
All the South African winners at international and club level in 2019
WORLD CUP: Springboks
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP: Springboks
WORLD RUGBY TEAM OF THE YEAR: Springboks
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP: Vincent Koch
ENGLISH PREMIERSHIP: Vincent Koch
TOP 14: Cheslin Kolbe, Rynhardt Elstadt
WORLD RUGBY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Pieter-Steph du Toit
WORLD RUGBY COACH OF THE YEAR: Rassie Erasmus
RASSIE’S RECORD-BREAKERS IN 2019
– First side to win the Rugby Championship and World Cup in the same season
– First side to win two World Cup titles away from home
– First side to win the World Cup title after losing a game in the pool stage
– First black African to lead SA in a World Cup final (Siya Kolisi)
– First SA side to score more than 15 points in a World Cup final
– First SA side to score a try in a World Cup final (Makazole Mapimpi)
– Joint-most tries by a SA team at a World Cup tournament (33, previously achieved in 2007)
– Most individual points in a World Cup final by a South African (Handre Pollard – 22 vs England)
– Most individual points in World Cup tournaments by a South African (Handre Pollard – 162)
– Fastest hat-trick in a World Cup match (Cobus Reinach vs Canada)
2019 TEST RESULTS
WON 35-17 vs Australia, Johannesburg
DREW 16-16 vs New Zealand, Wellington
WON 46-13 vs Argentina, Salta
WON 24-18 vs Argentina, Pretoria
WON 41-7 vs Japan, Kagoshima
LOST 23-13 vs New Zealand, Yokohama
WON 57-3 vs Namibia, Toyota
WON 49-3 vs Italy, Shizuoka
WON 66-7 vs Canada, Kobe
WON 26-3 vs Japan, Tokyo
WON 19-16 vs Wales, Yokohama
WON 32-12 vs England, Yokohama
*This article originally appeared in the January issue of SA Rugby magazine, on sale now!