Gift of the giver

Rassie Erasmus has broken the curse of the numbers-based transformation agenda, writes RYAN VREDE in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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There’s been a feel-good atmosphere around the Springboks for some time and much of that can be attributed to the efforts of coach Erasmus.

He has shrunk the gulf between the Boks and the best team in the world, New Zealand, doing so on a foundation of excellent coaching, astute tactics, effective player management and consistent and merited selections.

The last bit is particularly crucial in the broader scheme of things and the pressure to implement a numbers-centered transformation plan has added a layer of complexity to an already arduous task.

Erasmus has enjoyed a degree of grace not afforded to many of his predecessors in this regard. He failed to meet the 45% target (this applies to the average number of players of colour the Boks field in their match-day 23s throughout the year) in 2018 but suffered little to no repercussion. I suspect this grace largely emanates from Erasmus’ focus on a philosophy of equal opportunity, rather than one driven by the need to fill spaces to avoid a political backlash.

I’ve argued for some time that equal opportunity is imperative to an effective transformation plan. It is critical insomuch as it will expose a player’s competency at Test level. The players with the requisite skills and temperament will build a Test career; those who don’t, won’t. It is really that simple and it’s why Erasmus can’t be subjected to a rigid numbers-focused criteria.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be clear targets that are more than aspirational, but we constantly need to ask, ‘Has he given equal opportunity to the black players he has selected?‘ as a point of departure when assessing his performance in this facet of the job.

The answer is a strong yes. Take Bongi Mbonambi for example. He started his Test career poorly and I was vocal in the assertion that he wasn’t the right deputy for Malcolm Marx. Ultimately, though, Erasmus’ call is the only one that mattered and through the process of equal opportunity, which incorporates intensive investment through coaching and off-field mentoring, Mbonambi has established himself as a highly competent Test hooker.

Indeed, it spoke volumes about Erasmus’ faith in Mbonambi that he started ahead of Marx in the must-win World Cup pool game against Italy and then in the quarter-final against Japan. Marx hadn’t come close to his best form up to that point and it was the correct call, one that underlined the authenticity, transparency and sincerity of the transformation process Erasmus has undertaken.

The Bok sides in question featured seven black players in the starting XV, who all shared the common story of being afforded an equal opportunity to establish their suitability for Test rugby.

There is a way to go until we reach a point where representation, and the process that leads to a level of representation deemed reflective of our country by most fair-minded folk, is refined, replicable and effective. However, there is now an established blueprint of how to manage this most polarising of issues in South African sport.

That is a reason to celebrate.

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Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images via Hollywoodbets

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Ryan Vrede