Under coach Rassie Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi, the Springboks have fostered a culture of success, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s just gone 3am and the party is still going strong at the Springbok team hotel in Tokyo Bay. I bump into Lood de Jager, whose arm is in a sling.
‘I don’t care about my arm,’ he says, before seizing the World Cup winner’s medal hanging around his neck. ‘It’s all about this. I’d give both my arms for this.’
The gathering is relatively small with close friends and family in attendance. The din, however, is formidable. Siya Kolisi is laughing from the belly as he poses for yet another picture. Willie le Roux is drinking beer out of the Webb Ellis Cup while his teammates clap and cheer him on.
Kolisi was handed the trophy for the first time seven hours earlier. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the Bok captain carried ‘Bill’ over to his charges. The collective crouched and then leapt as one as Kolisi thrust the little yellow cup into the cool Yokohama sky. It was powerful moment that symbolised the unity, synergy and the achievement of the most diverse South African team in history.
Later, I found myself sharing a beer with the coach at the team hotel. Rassie Erasmus was telling a group of us why South African rugby must build on this success and maintain the winning momentum in the lead-up to the 2020 season, the 2021 British & Irish Lions series and the 2023 World Cup. The man who brought South African rugby back from the brink and then steered the Boks to a first world title in 12 years can’t stop thinking ahead. To be fair, he is wary of repeating the mistakes made after the Boks’ 1995 and 2007 victories.
Who wouldn’t want to invest in this group, though, after the statement it made over the course of an unforgettable World Cup campaign in Japan? The Boks have developed a special team environment over the past 18 months and that has had a direct impact on performances and results, as the Rugby Championship and World Cup titles confirm.
Erasmus is a pragmatic man who believes that actions speak louder than words. Kolisi is another who has gained universal popularity in the wake of his inspirational public statements in Japan, but is better known by coaches and teammates for his lead-by-example approach. With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why the pair would invest so heavily in a simple philosophy.
‘Let the main thing be the main thing,’ has been the mantra of the team since Erasmus came to power in 2018. While there’s been a drive to develop a squad that is more inclusive and representative of the country’s demographics, the Boks have once again put the game and what it means to be a Springbok on the pedestal.
Erasmus isn’t a fan of terms like ‘culture’. In the past, coaches have spoken about a happy and healthy team culture even when results and performances have indicated that the opposite may be true. It’s no secret that the Bok group of 2016 and 2017 had its problems on and off the pitch.
Over the past 18 months, however, Erasmus has looked to involve players as well as coaches in the decision-making process. Non-rugby issues have been tackled as a group, as have matters on selection.
Before the 2019 Rugby Championship, every player in the squad had a clear idea about when and where they would start, from the first game against Australia in Johannesburg right up to the final in Yokohama. While some would have been disappointed to miss out on the World Cup knockout matches, the workload was shared equally in the pool stages and across the preceding Rugby Championship.
It’s been more than a decade since the Boks boasted such a positive and productive team environment. Veteran prop Beast Mtawarira should know, after playing under four coaches since making his debut back in 2008.
‘Rassie changed a lot of things,’ Mtawarira says. ‘He’s very honest and tells it like it is. That’s one thing I’ve never had before with most Springbok coaches. That’s something I appreciate. It’s a reason the players respect him.’
Whereas past coaches tiptoed around the issue of transformation, Erasmus has embraced it. He’s made it clear from the outset that transformation is one of the team’s priorities.
‘It is important that the team is well represented,’ says Mtawarira, who became the first black African to play 100 Tests for South Africa last season. ‘I’ve had the privilege to see the team evolve on the transformation front. Look at where we are now. There are so many guys of colour who have produced excellent performances and are deserving of their places in the squad.
‘Again, it is something Rassie was honest about from the start. He said we needed to get the balance correct and that we needed to field a team that represents our country. I think we achieved that.’
Bongi Mbonambi, who struggled under Allister Coetzee, has thrived under Erasmus. The hooker was backed to start ahead of Malcolm Marx in the playoffs and proved to be one of the Boks’ best performing players over the course of the tournament.
He credits the processes put in place over the past two years as well as the coach’s attitude towards challenges and issues.
‘Rassie has made a massive difference,’ says Mbonambi. ‘He’s made decisions, like appointing Siya Kolisi as captain, that have influenced the whole nation.
‘Previous coaches would go the route of picking someone who has been there for years, even though you could see the player was no longer pulling his weight. Now you get picked by the work you do and how you execute.
‘He’s not the type of coach to do things behind closed doors; he will do things openly in front of the whole team. The players have more respect for someone like that. When you have a coach like that, you have more freedom to go out there and express yourself. He doesn’t put you in a box. That’s been the outstanding thing about this team.’
Keeping the players happy and focused on the ‘main thing’ is more complicated than it sounds. As a former Bok, Erasmus understands the day-to-day challenges and how unresolved issues can be damaging to the team environment during a tournament like the World Cup.
Last November, the Bok coach approached MyPlayers – the players’ organisation – with a unique proposal. He wanted a representative to join the team management for the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup. MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning subsequently linked up with Erasmus’ staff and set about resolving all player issues in ‘real time’.
‘It’s a brand-new approach, something no team, including New Zealand, has thought of employing until now,’ Henning tells me. If the feedback from the players and the results on the pitch are any indicator, the move has reaped significant rewards.
‘Rassie was clear about his mission from the outset. He didn’t want an issue to fester and become a greater concern to the point where we hear about it when the Boks return from tour. He also wanted someone around to help with managing the players’ non-rugby workload. The guys do a lot of media and PR appearances, along with their training and playing commitments. They also have personal lives.’
The players have known about the programme for the Rugby Championship and World Cup since they attended the alignment camps held around South Africa in March this year. That clarity certainly helped the side peak at the World Cup.
‘I went to a players’ organisation meeting with all my international counterparts when I was at the World Cup,’ says Henning. ‘They were asking me about what we have got right in South Africa. I said we are on the right path, but that it’s more important that we are on it together. Getting everyone aligned and pulling in the right direction has been crucial to our success.
‘When the players see that the coaches are open enough to have their representative as part of the team, they buy into the credibility of what the coaches are trying to achieve. I can meet with Rassie at any time when I’m on tour with the Boks. That’s a big feature of this Bok coaching team, they have time for everyone and the door is always open for a discussion.
‘Transparency and honesty have been a huge part of this team culture. Everyone knows their roles. Everyone knows who is playing when and where. I wasn’t involved in the past at this level, but the feedback from the players was that nobody knew what was going on. Sometimes a player was in the mix and sometimes he wasn’t and the gameplan tended to change quite often. Everything is 100% open now.’
In the past, the players’ representative wasn’t allowed into the hotel lobby and neither were players’ agents. Coaches didn’t want to engage with the representatives because they were outside the group and the group was focused on performing at the World Cup.
‘The problem doesn’t go away, though,’ says Henning. ‘It stays in the system even though you are ignoring it. The players train with that problem every day. They’re unhappy because their concerns aren’t being acknowledged. So you can see how dealing with an issue right away is so important.
‘I think we are one step ahead of New Zealand in this respect,’ he adds. ‘Their representative said to me that they would like to try something similar. It’s funny, because we always think of New Zealand as leading the way. Now South Africa are setting the trend.’
Erasmus also allowed the players’ families to stay in the team hotel throughout the World Cup. As Henning explains, the presence of a player’s loved ones can lift their mood and eliminate the stress of trying to deal with family-related issues while you are on the other side on the world.
‘In the past, wives and partners have stayed in a separate hotel. Rassie, however, has allowed the families to stay with the players and the agents to visit. The message has been clear: Rassie just wants you as a player to do your job.
‘If you don’t allow players access to their families, representatives and agents, it can create stress. The players must be allowed to live their lives.’
While Henning suggests that the system and environment have room for improvement, he feels Erasmus and the Boks have built something special over the past two years. The environment as much as the successes in the Rugby Championship and World Cup could encourage more players to push for a place in the Bok squad in future.
‘Look at a guy like Frans Steyn, who has won everything there is to win in international rugby,’ says Henning. ‘The tournament in Japan was his third World Cup, yet sometimes he looked like he was playing his first.
‘I don’t think Frans would have invested so much energy into the recent campaign if the environment wasn’t good. He’s the type of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. If he wasn’t happy, you would know about it. You could say he returned to the Boks for the environment. Players are human beings and I think that is something Rassie and company have acknowledged.
‘The environment is something you can use to attract players in future,’ Henning adds. ‘I think this team is only going to grow. Rassie is the kind of guy who never stops challenging himself or thinking about new ways to do things. The Boks are in good hands.’
*This article originally appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine, on sale now!