Rassie Erasmus admits he is surprised by how quickly the Springboks have progressed after their World Cup semi-final win over Wales on Sunday.
The Springboks progressed to the World Cup final for the first time since 2007 after claiming a nailbiting three-point victory in Yokohama. They will be facing England, who dethroned defending champions New Zealand, in a repeat of the 2007 final next Saturday.
It brings to a head the Boks’ progress under Erasmus and his technical staff after a tumultuous two years (2016-17) under former coach Alister Coetzee.
Record defeats by New Zealand and Ireland, a first defeat by Italy and a whitewash on a tour of Europe all led to assertions that Springbok rugby was dead by the end of 2017. But only one defeat in 11 matches in 2019 to confirm a turnaround begun in 2018 has turned those forecasts on their head.
Speaking after their semi-final victory, Erasmus credited South African players for their professionalism over the last two years.
‘We have always had the potential to be a force in world rugby and historically we have been,’ said Erasmus. ‘But we have been through some tough times in recent seasons.
‘The way the players in the last two, two-and-a-half years took the responsibility of being very professional and taking ownership of what it means to be a professional rugby player have been the big difference. There was a stage in South Africa where being a professional rugby player was just earning a pay cheque, but I think currently players understand that if they want to be a professional rugby player, they have to work really hard.
‘They can’t just move from province to province and collect a pay cheque. That attitude is slowly spreading throughout the provinces and the franchises and players are really pushing each other.
‘That whole level of mediocrity is slowly going out of our game – not that we have achieved anything yet. But we are slowly moving up to the standards where other nations are maximising their potential. Overall the players deserve a lot of credit for taking a more professional approach towards professional rugby.’
Erasmus added that he did not expect the Springboks to improve as quickly as they have, given the number of changes that needed to be made in South African rugby.
‘It has surprised me because we had to make a few changes,’ he said. ‘We made changes to the regulations in using overseas players; we had to talk to the franchises in terms of getting conditioning standards the same; we had to get Vodacom Super Rugby coaches to work together.
‘What surprised me was that they bought into the whole system, because that normally takes years for them to start working together. That was a positive that allowed us to turn around quickly.
‘But we are only in the final – let’s see how the final goes and then we’ll really know if we’ve turned the corner as much as we wanted to.’
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