Rassie Erasmus believes that South African rugby can turn things around before the Boks face England in a highly anticipated three-Test series this June. According to the new director of rugby, the Boks will be a competitive force at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Erasmus was absolutely brimming with confidence when he made his first public appearance in his new role earlier this year. Meanwhile, SA Rugby was busy finalising Allister Coetzee’s departure after a two-year tenure that witnessed 11 wins in 25 Tests and several record-breaking defeats.
It’s been a dark time for South African rugby. The Boks have battled to compete against the All Blacks, England and Ireland – the three top-ranked sides in world rugby. As a collective, the South African Super Rugby sides lost 13 out of 15 conference-stage matches against New Zealand opposition during 2017. The Lions were the best South African team on show, yet failed to beat the Crusaders in a final played in Joburg.
Erasmus certainly has the pedigree to rebuild South African rugby and steer the Boks back towards the light. It was Erasmus who coached the Free State Cheetahs to their second-ever Currie Cup title in 2005. It was Erasmus too who transformed the Stormers into a more physical side to be respected and, for a brief time, feared by local and Australasian teams alike. Over the course of 2016 and 2017, it was Erasmus who revived Irish club Munster, taking them to the Champions Cup semi-finals and to the Pro12 decider. Erasmus was named Coach of the Year for his efforts in the latter tournament.
A lot needs to be addressed in the months leading up to the series against England and, indeed, the 2019 World Cup. Unlike some who have already written the Boks off, Erasmus feels that there is enough time to get things right at Super Rugby and national level.
‘Definitely,’ he stated emphatically, when asked whether he would be able to turn things around. ‘We’ve got 18 Test matches before the next World Cup. We have around 16 months between now and then, and we have to utilise each and every day wisely. We have to get to know all the players and the Super Rugby coaches, and we have to integrate ourselves into their systems.’
‘I’ll admit it, there’s a lot of ground to be made up if we are going to catch those Test teams ranked one, two, and three [the All Blacks, England, and Ireland]. The good news is that we have already started the process. It’s no good waiting until the week before a Test match to put plans into action.’
Erasmus returned to South Africa in November last year to take up the position of director of rugby. He had a good idea about the systems at national level, having served as technical advisor to the Boks in 2007 and 2011, and having held the post of SA Rugby high performance manager between 2012 and 2016.
‘A lot’s been happening, and changing, at various levels of the game over the past few months,’ he said of the progress made to date. ‘We are ranked sixth in the world. We need to change that situation.’
He denies that the late appointment of the Bok coaching staff earlier this year will set preparations back. ‘Look back to 2012, when Heyneke Meyer was appointed head coach. Most of Heyneke’s support staff were only confirmed shortly before the start of that first Test series. Myself and the rugby department had to do a lot of the planning behind the scenes. We still managed to beat England in that series. It was the same story when Allister Coetzee was appointed in early 2016, and we beat Ireland 2-1 that June.’
The Boks will get together for several training camps in the lead-up to the series against England. Erasmus would also like to see the better local players lifting their standards in the Super Rugby tournament, so that they can take some momentum and confidence into the Test season. ‘Our biggest asset is that we have a tremendous amount of players. If we utilise those players well, then we can become a rugby powerhouse once more.’
‘I’ve been travelling around the country to see the franchises and the coaches over the past few months. It’s all about the management of players [some of whom are also contracted to the Boks].’
He confirmed that these discussions are not about prescribing a certain style of play to the respective franchises. The Bulls, Lions, Sharks, and Stormers – and, indeed, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, who are currently competing in the Pro14 – will all continue to embrace different game plans.
‘It’s easy to say that we have got a [national] blueprint. That’s nice to have at a fundamental and skills level, but it’s not so easy on a tactical level,’ explained Erasmus. ‘You can never have every franchise playing tactically like you do [at the Boks]. That said, we need to work closely with them so that we understand what they’re trying to do. That’s the gap we’re trying to bridge.’
‘We’ve already seen some positive signs in this regard. We have some very open-minded coaches at the franchises. The relationships between us and them have grown a great deal, and I believe South African rugby and the Boks will benefit as a result’
As things stand, South Africans based at overseas clubs will not be considered for the Boks unless they have accumulated 30 or more Test caps. While there’s been a push over the past two years to select players based in South Africa – a policy developed to keep more of the top players in the country – Erasmus feels that world-class players plying their trade abroad must be utilised. For instance, Duane Vermeulen (Toulon), François Steyn (Montpellier), Francois Louw (Bath) and several others could play a key role for the Boks in 2018 and in the lead-up to the World Cup.
‘There are about 10 of them [overseas-based players] who could play for the Springboks,’ said Erasmus. ‘We have to make sure that the best talent in South Africa gets an opportunity. However, if there’s a player based overseas with more than 30 caps who still wants to play and is conditioned suitably with the timing of the seasons, then we will certainly consider them. I won’t overlook those players. Common sense must prevail. We can’t cut off our nose to spite our face.
‘Sometimes it’s a challenge to manage so many players. But, if we refine our structures and the way we are working, I’m confident that we can develop a group that can take us forward.’
RASSIE’S COACHING RECORD*
Pro12 (2016–2017): 21 wins (81%), named 2016/17
Coach of the Year
Champions Cup (2016–2017):
6 wins (75%)
Super Rugby (2008–2011):
35 wins, including one conference title (60%)
Currie Cup (2008–2011):
39 wins, including one Currie Cup title (64%)
Super Rugby (2006–2007):
9 wins (35%)
Currie Cup (2005–2006):
18 wins, including two Currie Cup titles (69%)
Technical advisor to the Springboks (2007, 2011)
*Includes stints as head coach or director of rugby of the respective teams.
RASSIE’S SPRINGBOK RECORD
Wins 27 (75%)
Debut vs British & Irish Lions (1997)
Miscellaneous Captained the Boks in one Test (vs Australia in 1999), played for the Boks at the 1999 World Cup, SA Rugby Player of the Year nominee (2000)