South Africa-born Rebels coach Dave Wessels says he is not surprised by the lasting impact Rassie Erasmus has made on Springbok rugby.
From the relative doldrums of No 7 in the World Rugby rankings and 11 Test wins from the previous 22 before Erasmus took over, the Boks have been on a steady rise back to the top of the tree under his tutelage.
Erasmus orchestrated stunning wins over New Zealand, Australia, England and France, a Rugby Championship crown in 2019, and ultimately a historic third World Cup title. In the process, Erasmus’ men became the only team to win the Rugby Championship and the World Cup in the same year, the first team to drop a pool game and win the tournament, and the first SA team to score a try in the final.
Wessels, who is head coach of the Melbourne Rebels, says Erasmus is one of the smartest men he has ever come across and that the World Cup-winning coach was always destined to achieve great things.
‘He is a very intelligent guy and super organised. But I think his secret is he is pretty charismatic and I think most people look at the Springboks at the moment and they see a team enjoying each other’s company and enjoying their rugby and working hard for each other and he has been able to bring that out, a lot through his personality,’ Wessels said.
Wessels says his impressions of Erasmus were not so much about creating new ways to play but to understand the game as it is being played and officiated, and the strengths of his players, and to then thoroughly maximise the opportunity to win within those boundaries.
‘I remember him being very into statistics and very into the numbers in the game, and I think probably you can see that by the way the Springboks are playing.
‘To him, he doesn’t create the rules, his job is to win by the rules that are set for him. At times he has come in for some criticism for the conservative way they’ve been playing but it’s been very successful and I think he would have to put a lot of work into what makes a winning team, and how to deliver that.
‘He has done it as a player and for a long time now as a coach. Like most coaches, he has probably had some disappointments and learned from those things as a coach and I guess the funny thing is the margins are so small.
‘In international rugby, if you get your timings slightly wrong, as Joe Schmidt said or it may have been Warren Gatland, the margins for error are so small. And I think one of the things Rassie has got right is just the timing of the way he has brought the squad together and having them peak at the right time.’
Wessels also rubbished the notion that the Springboks play boring rugby, insisting that variations Erasmus has brought into the game-plan lead to winning rugby because it flummoxes their opponents.
‘A lot of people think of the Springboks as a team that just bashes but in actual fact I think they create a lot of decision making and mental pressure on the opposition, through some subtle things they do and that makes them more deceptive because of some of the things they run, the trick plays they might run out of a lineout, which in turn makes them more effective.
‘They do a lot of things in the game which are quite smart, and don’t rely on physicality that creates that pressure. And over the course of the game, Rassie also knew he has a six-two bench and that was great asset up his sleeve.’
The 37-year-old Wessels reveals he first met Erasmus at a coaching seminar in Cape Town and was so impressed after their interaction that he had asked Erasmus to be his protégé.
‘I remember asking him at the end of the presentation just saying: “I have never heard anyone speak about rugby like that before and I want to learn from you. I will sit under your desk, you don’t have to pay me a cent, you won’t even know I am there. I just want to absorb everything you say”,’ Wessels explained.
‘He gave me his phone number, which I think he probably always regretted. I just hassled him and hassled him and eventually he said “ya, listen, come in for the Currie Cup”.’
Wessels, who was coaching rugby at age-grade level at the time, ended up working as an analyst for Erasmus and his assistants, some of whom are now with the Boks as well, like Matt Proudfoot and Jacques Nienaber.
‘It was a huge amount of luck, to learn this flood of knowledge. I almost wish I could go back to it now with a better base of understanding, to be able to ask better questions,’ Wessels concluded.
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