Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus wants to create a winning culture, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The trophy awarded to the Springboks for beating the British & Irish Lions in 2009 sits in a cabinet at SA Rugby headquarters. It is surrounded by a host of sevens titles that are held by the Blitzboks.
‘Take those out and there won’t be much left,’ someone chirps when they see me studying the glass shelves. There’s no Webb Ellis Cup or Rugby Championship trophy in this cabinet. There’s no sign that the Boks have won anything of significance since that series against the Lions nine years ago.
New director of rugby and Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus hopes to change that. After his official appointment in early-March, he vowed to turn things around in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
‘It’s one hell of a job,’ Erasmus admits as we take a seat in his modest office. We speak at length about the past two years, a period that saw the Boks winning 11 out of 25 Tests and, at one stage, falling to seventh in the World Rugby rankings.
Erasmus acknowledges the challenges he will face as director of rugby and head coach. He believes his experiences of coaching the Cheetahs, Stormers, Irish club Munster, and even the Boks at certain stages over the past 14 years, will aid him in his quest to take the South African team to the top.
‘I always thought this opportunity would come along later in my career – if I was good enough,’ the 45-year-old says. ‘Now that it’s here, I feel I am ready for it.’
Erasmus played 36 Tests for the Boks between 1997 and 2001. The flanker spent a lot of his free time analysing the opposition and was recognised as one of the most technically astute players of his generation.
A broken foot led to his first coaching opportunity in 2004. Instead of focusing on recovery, Erasmus pushed for a chance to work with the coaches of Free State’s Vodacom Cup team.
By 2006 he had coached the senior Free State side to two Currie Cup titles – the latter was shared with the Blue Bulls. While the Cheetahs battled in Super Rugby, Erasmus’ bold and innovative methods attracted attention. Jake White appointed him the Boks’ technical adviser in 2007.
‘I’ve never been the type of guy to set goals like “I want to be Springbok captain” or “I want to be Springbok coach,”’ he says. ‘The captaincy was offered to me [for a Test against the Wallabies in 1999], but it wasn’t something I actively pursued. It was the same with coaching. I did it for the love of it.
‘I found I enjoyed the excitement of watching a plan come together. It was only when I moved on to the position of SA Rugby high-performance manager in 2012 that I started to wonder whether I could do the job at an international level.’
Erasmus takes a moment to consider the question about his early rugby influences.
The Boks won 17 Tests in a row between August 1997 and November 1998. Nick Mallett was at the helm for 16 of those games, while Erasmus started as many as 15 during that period.
‘Mallett was to the point,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘In the late-1990s, there weren’t too many of those one-on-one relationships that you see today. Mallett analysed you on your performance and you knew where you stood. He didn’t try to get you up for a game, as he felt you shouldn’t need that as a Springbok. I respected that as a player and I still feel it has value today. When you get to this level, we shouldn’t have to pamper you in order for you to play well.
‘Having said that, I understand that the game has evolved and you have to have a leadership group that takes ownership of certain things. I also enjoyed the management style of Peet Kleynhans, who coached the Cheetahs when I was there. He got into your heart. He wasn’t always as technical as someone like Mallett, but hell, we wanted to play for that guy.’
Erasmus was Stormers head coach between 2008 and 2009, and the de facto director of rugby at the Cape franchise between 2008 and 2011. He served as technical adviser to Bok coaches Jake White (2007) and Peter de Villiers (2011) before taking up the high-performance manager post at SA Rugby in 2012.
Erasmus underwent a significant change after spending a couple of years at Munster. If the testimonies of the players and administrators are anything to go by, he changed the Irish club for the better too.
THE COETZEE FALLOUT
Erasmus returned to South Africa in November 2017 to take up the new director of rugby post. It was only on 1 March of this year, however, that he was officially appointed Bok head coach.
Ousted coach Allister Coetzee did not go quietly. In late-January, an email addressed to SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux was leaked to the media. It detailed Coetzee’s grievances with the union and his refusal to work under Erasmus. Coetzee also alleged it had always been SA Rugby’s intention to bring Erasmus back to lead the Boks.
‘I was, or rather am, a big supporter of Allister Coetzee,’ says Erasmus. ‘I was one of the guys who backed him to get the head coach position in 2016, because I had worked with him at the Stormers and Western Province [between 2008 and 2011]. I was the one who brought him to the Stormers after the 2007 World Cup. I have always rated him highly.’
Erasmus thought the Boks were in good hands when he decided to pursue an opportunity with Munster in 2016.
‘Allister had the job. I thought that going to Ireland would give me the chance to evolve as a coach and to spend some time with my family. I thought that when my kids were a bit older I could go back to South Africa and coach the Boks, or get another job in rugby.
‘In a way, I was director of rugby before I left South Africa. I was the high-performance manager, looking after the women, the sevens, the U20s and the South Africa A side. Only the Boks were outside that scope. We were supporting the Bok side in every way, but they weren’t reporting to the high-performance manager. Then the high-performance and the development departments combined. I became the general manager of the rugby department. Suddenly the schools and age-group elite squads were also my responsibility.
‘At that stage, I made peace with the fact we weren’t going to have the Boks in the rugby department. I thought, “OK, I have done my thing, I have supported Heyneke Meyer [between 2012 and 2015], let me go overseas for a bit.” After the results in 2016 and 2017, the SA Rugby leadership decided that we needed this director of rugby position that would now incorporate the Springboks with all the other responsibilities I had had before.’
More than a few eyebrows were raised when SA Rugby decided to give Erasmus a six-year contract. If all goes to plan, he will preside over the Boks at the next two World Cups and when the Lions tour South Africa in 2021.
Erasmus feels his future with the side will depend on the Boks’ results. It’s a message that contrasts the one of the previous coach, who had the gall to talk about progress even in the wake of several record defeats.
‘It doesn’t matter if I have a two-year contract or an eight-year contract,’ he says. ‘I will be fired if I don’t get results. That’s a fact. I didn’t ask for six years. I didn’t appoint myself for six years. That’s what the SA Rugby leadership decided.
‘I understand why they did that, though, because there is the Lions series in 2021 and the 2023 World Cup after that. We have short-term goals. We must get a winning culture going and get the morale up, but you can’t just be in survival mode between now and the 2019 World Cup. You have to be in strategic mode too.
‘Six years gives you the scope to work with everybody, from the U16 players right up to the elite players. If you can get those systems aligned you are going to be more successful. Look at the countries that are doing well, their structures are aligned in some way.
‘Think about it strategically: if you are the Bok coach and you have that kind of system in place, you can make all sorts of plans for the short and long term. You can think about where you are thin at Test level, say at No 9 or 10. You can plan for the Boks to get better year on year while still focusing on the immediate task of the Test season. You can get coaches coming through too, and strengthen your management team down the line.’
The pressure is certainly on the Boks to finish 2018 with an improved win record. How long, though, will it be until we see more trophies of substance in SA Rugby’s cabinet? The Boks will need to beat the All Blacks at least once in a Rugby Championship campaign if they are going to claim that elusive title.
Erasmus speaks about this seemingly impossible goal in broad terms.
‘Look, I could say, “Yes, we can beat New Zealand,” but that’s just another quote, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean anything. So let me rather talk about the potential in our personnel. I coached with and against some unbelievable players in Europe. What I noticed, however, is that the players in South Africa don’t need to stand back for those guys. If we can get things aligned, we should bounce back in a short space of time. We should do well in the Rugby Championship.
‘We took 57 points against New Zealand in Albany last year, and then we lost by two points to the same side at home. That’s how quickly you can turn things around. We’re much closer than most people may think. It’s just about maximising that potential.’
MEETING THE TARGETS
New Zealand gets it right at Test level because the elite players are managed by the Super Rugby teams with the All Blacks in mind. Skills are developed accordingly and there is a drive to condition and even rest players so that they may peak for the national side at key stages of the season.
Better player management at the lower levels would ease the Bok coach’s pain, especially with regard to transformation. Most of the franchises are falling well short of the prescribed targets.
Erasmus hopes to see an improvement in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. The Boks will need to field a side that is 50% black at that tournament.
‘I was a franchise coach for many years, so I know where they are coming from when they are reluctant to help the national team. If I’m a franchise coach and if SA Rugby tells me to do something, why should I do it? I’m not only talking about transformation now. It goes for everything, from aerial skills to scrum conditioning. Why should a franchise coach do x, y, or z just because the national coach wants him to?
‘We have to change the way we think in this country, though. If the Bok coach asks a franchise coach to do something, it is because he believes it is going to benefit the players, the franchise and the Boks in the long term.
‘Of course, if a franchise coach ignores a request, he should know that his players are probably not going to play for the Boks. Players who don’t make the national side these days often explore options abroad.
‘Everything we are trying to do is for the benefit of the franchises and the national side. We want to lift the teams in certain areas and help their best players stay in South Africa. We want to share some IP [intellectual property] with them. We want them to win games overseas and win the Super Rugby tournament.
‘It’s the same with transformation,’ Erasmus continues. ‘Coaches who ignore transformation targets won’t keep their jobs for very long. We all know what the targets are [franchises must be 45% black in 2018]. I’m not going to phone them and say, “Hey, why aren’t you playing more black players?” They will quickly realise the reality of the situation.
‘A franchise might be fielding fewer black players and they may be winning now, but just wait until they start losing and people start looking at their transformation record. That’s why I believe they will come to the party.’
Experienced black players, and indeed experienced black forwards, are still in relatively short supply, though. Only five of the 41 black forwards used across the franchises between 2014 and 2017 started 30 or more Super Rugby games in that four-year period.
‘You won’t always have control in that situation, but the numbers will improve as we improve that working relationship with the franchises. That’s a long-term plan. We won’t fix it before December. I really believe we have some good black players out there, though.
‘Yes, maybe there aren’t as many forwards with a lot of experience, but that will change. Ox Nche is coming through nicely at the Cheetahs. Bulls coach John Mitchell has put a lot of pressure on Trevor Nyakane to get fit and that will result in the Boks seeing a better version of Trevor in the months to come. We’re probably not going to hit those targets every weekend, but in terms of our average over the next couple of years, I think we will get there.’
CALLING ON SAFFAS ABROAD
Erasmus gives the impression that he has a clear idea of who will face Wales and England in June. He is open to the option of selecting players based at overseas clubs, as long as they can offer something a South Africa-based player cannot.
‘You can’t stop a player who is outside the Bok group heading abroad to make some money. I’ve heard it said that there are more than 400 players at overseas clubs, but I’m more concerned about the seven or eight players abroad who can realistically contribute to the Bok match 23.
‘If your team is lacking skills in certain positions, you have to look at bringing a player back from overseas. There’s talent and potential here, but it’s going to take us time to bring it all through. You might need to bring in a stop-gap and say, we need this specific skill right now.
‘Experience is the other thing that may be missing. It’s crucial in the heat of battle. You need experienced players to handle those situations. On top of that, you need leaders to help other players, even those with experience, to deal with that pressure. So those are some of the other qualities players based overseas may have to offer.’
DEVELOPING A WINNING BRAND
Erasmus wants winning to be the Springboks’ priority in 2018.
‘England tackled everyone to pieces when Eddie Jones took over in 2016. A lot of people called them boring, but they were grinding out wins and building a team culture.
‘I’m not saying we will do that, but I don’t think we need to put a “brand” out there between now and December. We have to get a winning culture going again. I know people will worry about boring rugby, but I don’t think we will see “our brand” just yet.
‘I’d like us to be a clever rugby nation that is not following anyone else. We have a unique landscape in South Africa and any new coach coming over here will struggle to understand it. We have to be innovative in how we get results out of this system.’
As I get up to leave, I ask Erasmus if the enormity of the task scares him. In The Poisoned Chalice, veteran rugby writer Gavin Rich interviews the Bok coaches of the post-isolation era and explores the affliction of “Mad Coach’s Disease”. Most of them admit the pressures associated with the position have changed them for the worse.
So, is Erasmus fighting a losing battle, or can he be the change agent that South African rugby so desperately needs? He sighs.
‘I try to tell myself I’ve seen it all. The job does change coaches. This morning, one of the ladies in the office told me we should take before and after pictures. I said we should do it weekly. That’s the kind of strain you’re under and, of course, you’re not sure how long you are going to be in this position.
‘I’m conscious of the fact. I’ve spoken to three former Bok coaches already and they’ve all said there’s a lot of advice and opinions coming my way. Those coaches have told me to listen to it all, but to try to find better systems and ways of doing things. I must be innovative, but I must never lose sight of my own vision, because that is what got me the job in the first place.
‘I’ll look out for that. Getting sidetracked is something I’m wary of. It’s a massive sport in South Africa. Emotions are always running high. It is a bit daunting in that respect; there are so many people who know a great deal about the game and want to help. At the end of the day, however, it’s up to me to decide what is going to take us forward.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue is on sale 21 May.