New Spring­boks coach Rassie Eras­mus has a plan to re­ju­ve­nate his team and South African rugby.


NZ Rugby World - - Contents -


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 States 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.


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 high­per­for­mance 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.”


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.”


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.”


BA­SICS The Boks need to im­prove their ba­sic skills to be a force again.

BE­LIEF The South African sides haven’t won enough in Su­per Rugby.

ON THE RADAR Duane Ver­meulen will surely be con­sid­ered again for Boks se­lec­tion.

LO­CAL LEGEND Rassie Eras­mus be­came a fan favourite in Mun­ster.

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