'Rassie has made a massive difference' - How Erasmus turned the Boks around

The former Munster head coach has overseen South Africa’s transformation into World Cup contenders.

ONE ONLY NEEDS to see a few replays of Rassie Erasmus on the coach cam during games to understand how much he cares about the Springboks.

The 47-year-old is never able to hide his emotion, smashing his fist onto the desk when things go against the Boks or cheering and high-fiving when his team have scored another try or earned a crucial turnover.

So calm and controlled in front of the media, Erasmus doesn’t hold anything back when he’s in the zone during games.

rassie-erasmus-ahead-of-the-game Erasmus has led the Boks' resurgence. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s impossible to escape the feeling that Erasmus had always hoped and intended to return to the Springboks throughout his year-and-a-half stint with Munster.

When the offer came to move home in a dual role as South African Rugby Union’s director of rugby and Springboks head coach, Erasmus was unable to resist.

His sudden departure from Munster mid-contract, and having previously told the province’s supporters and players he was staying, certainly left a sour taste for some in Ireland but there is no doubting how impressively Erasmus has turned the Boks around.

When he took over in December 2017, the Boks were coming off a November tour that had seen them hammered by Ireland and beaten by Wales. In September, the Boks had been obliterated 57-0 by the All Blacks, one of the darkest days in their history.

Those dire months capped what had been a miserable time under Allister Coetzee, with the Boks losing eight of their 12 Tests in 2016, including their first-ever defeat to Italy.

Erasmus took over with the Boks at their lowest ebb and has managed to utterly transform them in less than two years to the extent that they are back in the World Cup semi-finals this weekend with a strong chance of winning against Wales in Yokohama.

Having beaten England in their June Test series, won against New Zealand, and enjoyed a decent November Test run in 2018, the Boks secured the shortened Rugby Championship this year, drawing with the All Blacks to underline their renewal.

Those who have been working with the teak-tough and intelligent Erasmus have no doubt about his central importance in turning the ship around.

“Rassie came on board with very specific plan to play to South African strengths,” explained forwards coach Matt Proudfoot, a survivor of the Coetzee era, today in Tokyo.

japan-v-south-africa-2019-rugby-world-cup-quarter-final-tokyo-stadium Erasmus has focused on traditional South African strengths. Source: Adam Davy

“When you get alignment in a team where everybody understands the plan, understands their role in the plan, and there is honesty and buy-in from the group as a collective, you can be very, very powerful.

“The big change is the mindset that Rassie has created throughout the group to empower everybody to take ownership of their roles and to play the South African way. That’s the way we are comfortable playing, every side plays their own way.

“Wales have an unbelievable defensive structure, great outside backs. They play a specific way, we have a specific way. I think the players have confidence in that and have confidence in knowing their roles and exactly what is required of them. They go out and thrive in executing it. That’s been the big change.”

Prop Thomas du Toit – a late call-up to this World Cup and a man who had a loan spell at Munster under Erasmus – is in agreement about his head coach’s key attribute.

“The biggest strength that he has is letting everyone be on the same page and understanding the plan, being in alignment with each other,” said du Toit.

“It’s not necessarily about what people are saying on the outside but what we want to get right and how we want to be aligned from the inside.”

That Erasmus is the SARU’s director of rugby has been very useful in his role as Boks head coach, his power allowing him to reverse the previous rule against overseas-based players being selected for the national team.

Erasmus has been able to welcome back in big players like Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux, Vincent Koch, and Frans Steyn as a result, instantly making the Boks’ squad much stronger.

sonny-bill-williams-with-cheslin-kolbe-after-the-game Cheslin Kolbe has been sensational under Erasmus. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He also made the big decision of naming flanker Siya Kolisi as the Boks’ first-ever black captain, a move that was welcomed as symbolic, but which Kolisi’s team-mates feel says more about their need to earn recognition from Erasmus.

“To me, what this team is about is that your skin colour or where you come from does not matter,” said hooker Bongi Mbonambi.

“Rassie will pick a guy who is there to work hard and does his job well. When you compare him to previous coaches, they would pick someone who had been there for years even though he was not pulling his weight. Now you get picked by the work that you do.”

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Erasmus has focused on traditional South Africa qualities on the pitch, as their win over Japan in last weekend’s quarter-finals showed, with the Boks grinding, ball-carrying and mauling their way to a comprehensive win. 

The 40-metre maul that led to de Klerk’s try was a particularly satisfying one.

“It was a fantastic moment in the game. When the opportunity presented itself, the pack took it,” said Proudfoot. “That’s something I am really proud of, to see them pushing for pressure points. When they felt that crack, they flooded that situation.”

The Boks’ superb defensive quality was also on show, with former Munster defence coach Jacques Nienaber having followed Erasmus home to lead their major progress in that area.

“There was a great effort shown by the team,” said number eight Duane Vermeulen. “Not to concede a try being down to 14 men [when Tendai Mtawarira was sin-binned], that was fantastic for the team and for our coach, Jacques Nienaber.”

japan-rugby-wcup-japan-south-africa Siya Kolisi has captained the Boks under Erasmus. Source: Eugene Hoshiko

The Boks could certainly have been better in attack against the Japanese but they possess genuine danger men out wide in the delightful Kolbe and the prolific Makazole Mapimpi, who has 13 tries in 12 Tests so far.

The Boks are clearly in superb physical condition, with ex-Munster head of strength and conditioning, Aled Walters, in charge of that area under Erasmus.

The head coach also brought Felix Jones on board just before the World Cup to aid with the Boks’ analysis of opposition defences and although the Irishman is understandably keeping a very low profile during this World Cup, the players and coaches have appreciated what Jones has brought to the mix with his work-rate and knowledge.

All in all, Erasmus has built a fairly happy Boks family and though some in Munster might question his honesty, the South Africa players have appreciated Rassie’s directness as much as anything.

“Rassie has made a massive difference,” said Mbonambi. “That difference has not just been to the South Africa team because his decisions have affected the whole nation.

“He is a coach who has an honest opinion about every player and he is not someone who does things behind closed doors but does it openly and everyone knows about it.

“Players have respect for someone who is honest and open and says what he is looking for. It gives you more freedom to go out there and express yourself. He does not put you in a box and that has been one of his outstanding features.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Tokyo

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