Coaching the Springboks is arguably one of the toughest jobs in world sport because of the intense pressure and expectation that accompanies the role.
But World Rugby Coach of the Year 2019 Rassie Erasmus was so confident in his ability to turn around a struggling team that he doubled up on his duties and became the new head coach in March 2018, a year after he’d been appointed as Director of Rugby.
Coming in only 18 months out from Rugby World Cup 2019 and with the Springboks at a low ebb following a difficult period under his predecessor Allister Coetzee, people questioned if Erasmus had taken on too much. Not him.
Erasmus knew South African rugby inside and out, having spent two previous spells with the South African Rugby Union as a technical advisor, as well as coaching the Cheetahs, Western Province and the Stormers, who he took to the 2010 Super Rugby final, with a successful two-year spell at Munster thrown in for good measure.
“A year and a half (before a World Cup) is a short time to appoint a new coach. But I’ve been in the system from 1994 when the game went professional … I went through all the stages of professionalism … and I went into coaching straight after playing,” he said, shortly after South Africa won the Rugby World Cup for the third time in Japan in 2019.
Coetzee’s attempt to reinvent the Springboks as an attacking force had only enjoyed limited success. A 57-0 loss to the All Blacks showed how far they had fallen; it was one of 11 defeats in 25 tests in 2016 and 2017.
Erasmus’ skill, however, was recognising and retaining the good things that Coetzee had introduced as well as re-establishing the pillars on which Springbok rugby had been built: a good team culture and the immense physicality and sheer bloody-mindedness that had traditionally separated them from the rest of world rugby.
Sticking rigidly to a game plan that revolved around a suffocating defence and box-kicking between the 10-metre lines – but only if other avenues of attack were not viable – South Africa stubbornly refused to budge whenever criticism came their way in Japan, a tournament where everybody fell in love with the Brave Blossoms for their free-flowing rugby but also begrudgingly respected the Springboks.
Commenting after the Springboks had put on a tactical masterclass to beat England 32-12 in the final of RWC 2019, former winger Akona Ndungane, said: “He (Erasmus) had a plan and he stuck with it from the start of the tournament up until the end.
“The media attacked the players for kicking too much and said the game plan was boring. No one will now remember how many box kicks Faf did.”
Lighting up the coaching world
It would be wrong though to label Erasmus as conservative.
The 47-year-old first caught the eye as an innovative coach with the Cheetahs, famously sitting on top of the stadium roof in Bloemfontein using coloured paddles, and later a flashing lightbox, to deliver messages to his assistant coaches and players.
Even though he became known as ‘DJ Rassie’, he was turning more heads than tables.
Melbourne Rebels head coach Dave Wessels spent time shadowing Erasmus in the early part of his career and gave a fascinating insight into the Erasmus’ approach in an interview with RUGBY.com.au, on the eve of the RWC 2019 showpiece.
"He is a very intelligent guy and super organised,” Wessels recalled.
"I remember him being very into statistics and very into the numbers in the game. 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.
"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.
“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,”
Determined that his side would be fully acclimatised before their RWC 2019 opener against the All Blacks, Erasmus made sure the Springboks were the first of the 20 teams to arrive in Japan for the 2019 tournament. That they were the last to leave is testament to him and his players.
“I have never seen South Africa like this. We were playing for the people back home. We can achieve anything if we work together as one.”— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 2, 2019
Hear from @Springboks’s Siya Kolisi on what is not just a #RWCFinal win - It’s more than that #RWC2019 #ENGvRSA #WebbEllisCup pic.twitter.com/qgfv0STIlr
Spending nine weeks together could have been purgatory but Erasmus made sure it was a whole lot of fun. This was a multicultural Springboks side that celebrated and embraced its differences.
“I would like players to have the feeling that we are committed because we don’t want to disappoint one another, not because we are afraid of one another or embarrassed of one another,” he once said, during his tenure at Munster.
Mentored by Mallett
As for the main influences behind his successful transition from player to coach, Erasmus has previously singled out Nick Mallett and Peet Kleynhans.
Playing under Mallett during the 17-match unbeaten test run helped Erasmus build up his knowledge of the sport, and explains his astute analytical mind, while the motivational skills of Kleynhans left a lasting impression.
“It was a professional game then, but it wasn’t really professional,” said Erasmus of his time under Mallett in the late 90s.
“In a short space of time, you had to give guys a singular philosophy and I think Nick Mallett was fantastic at that.
“Also, the technical and tactical things he taught me because he was an eight-man [number eight] himself and that was my position. Nick Mallett was definitely at the top.”