It has been a tough season for South African rugby with Allister Coetzee’s side losing eight of their 12 Tests in 2016. Yet amidst all the hand-wringing, Rassie Erasmus remains optimistic there remains truth in the old Afrikaans saying “the Springbok will always stand up again”.
Defeats in Europe to England, Wales and, most painful of all, Italy, brought a sorry end to the Boks’ international campaign.
Their first season under Coetzee, who replaced Heynecke Meyer as head coach following South Africa’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in October 2015, had begun with a first defeat on home soil to Ireland and despite two subsequent victories over Joe Schmidt’s injury-hit tourists, the writing was on the wall.
In truth, it had started much earlier, when Meyer presided over the humiliating World Cup pool loss to Eddie Jones’s Japan in Brighton the previous September, while the series win over Ireland merely papered over the cracks.
The Rugby Championship exposed more faultlines, none less so than October’s 57-15 home defeat to old foes New Zealand in Durban, just short of a year after running the All Blacks extremely close at Twickenham in the World Cup semi-final.
The post-match apologies from Coetzee became routine and reached their nadir when Conor O’Shea’s Italy beat them in Rome and when they arrived home it was to calls for a root and branch review of the Springboks’ shambolic season.
The introspection, which has included two coaching indabas, or gatherings, is expected to conclude before the end of January but already the General Council of SA Rugby has approved what it described as “ground-breaking constitutional changes”, including allowing private investment in SARU’s provincial unions.
“We know Springbok supporters and our partners are looking to us for instant answers and many of them may want to see heads roll. But building winning teams is not an exact science and we want to make sure that the changes we make are the right solutions to our current problems.”
Former flanker Erasmus, 44, represented the Springboks 37 times, led the Cheetahs to a Currie Cup success against the odds in his first head coaching job and rejuvenated Super Rugby franchise the Stormers before working with the national team and eventually become SARU’s high performance general manager, a post he held until leaving his homeland behind after the Ireland series to become Munster’s first director of rugby.
Far away from the pain, he is nonetheless feeling some discomfort.
“It’s so hard for the coaches, the players, the supporters. Teams go through patches like this but, you know, there’s an Afrikaans saying, ‘the Springbok will always stand up again’ and they will stand up again.
“They will make plans and they’ll work it out and they will be back again. They’re going through tough times now but there are too many good players in that country and there are too many good coaches in that country and administrators and they’ll find a way to get to the top again.
“It’s a bad patch now and I remember in 2006, I think South Africa went through five losses in a row and in 2007 they won the World Cup, so while everybody right now is hurting with the performances they’ll find a way to bounce back. South Africans always find a way to stand up again.
“So I’m sure everybody involved will do some good introspection and see where the hell the problem is, ‘why are we struggling like this’ and they’ll find solutions, they always do. There’s too many good rugby players there to fall totally apart.
“It’s a bad patch, everybody knows it. I know it, my children talk about it, everybody talks about it but you can’t just wish. Even if you’re one of the other countries who don’t like the Springboks, you can’t just wish the good players away there. So they’ll be back.”
Erasmus has some rejuvenation work of his own to do at Munster, charged with restoring the swagger that brought the province two Heineken Cup wins a decade ago but in a much-changed European rugby landscape. While Declan Kidney was steering Munster to those 2006 and 2008 wins, the South African was quietly transitioning from player to coach.
His early success at the Cheetahs, delivering a first Currie Cup to the province in 29 years at the end of his first season as the boss in 2005, aged 32, remains his favourite coaching moment, despite being involved as part of Jake White’s coaching team during the successful 2007 World Cup campaign.
“It was something like 27 or 29 years where we hadn’t won a Currie Cup and everybody wondered whether we would ever win one and we won three in a row, the last one with Naka Drotske. I think that was probably the most against-the-odds performance.
“In 2007 when Jake brought me in on the technical side of things and I coached a lot of the staff when they were away at the Tri-Nations, the guys who stayed behind. But Jake was more the mastermind of that. So it was nice for me to take the Cheetahs, a team who hadn’t won it and then win a few years in a row. Then I enjoyed it when the Stormers, they were averaging eighth on the table, 11th when we took them over, and we took them to number one and a home semi-final and finals. It would have been really satisfying if we could have won a Super Rugby final but we got so close and that would be the most exciting.
“It was a great honour to be at the 2011 World Cup and to be involved in 2007 and those kind of things. I played at the 1999 World Cup, but coaching-wise, I must say I think the Cheetahs was the most satisfying. Coming from nowhere to winning was nice.” It appears Erasmus made a seamless transition from playing to management but he credits the faith former Free State and Golden Cats coach Peet Kleynhans showed in him and others as players to hand them coaching responsibilities.
“Peet’s still living and coaching in Bloemfontein, he’s a good people’s man,” Erasmus said.
“I always enjoyed coaching. As a player, he allowed me while I was playing to do all the analysis and almost coach the forwards as I was playing. It wasn’t like an ego thing, we didn’t have a lot of coaches and it was a case of ‘you coach the scrums or the lineouts’ or ‘you do the analysis of the tackles and present it on Monday’.
“It wasn’t just me, there were different guys, like Brendan Venter was in the team; there were a lot of leaders in the team and talented players and I enjoyed it. Then I broke my foot and had to stop playing I started doing it part-time while still trying to play, so while it looks like I stopped playing and went straight into coaching, actually it was a longer process.” Erasmus said he has followed Kleynhans’ example in looking for similar coaching potential in his players.
“For me, there’s no doubt that the best players are the ones who think like a coach. You can think about what could go wrong and talk your team-mate into doing something right that he might do wrong and fix problems on the field. They can almost work it like a training session to rectify problems.
“You can’t expect in a group of 40 players to have 40 of them who think like coaches but the more you have.... There’s lots of brilliant players who don’t think like that, but I think successful teams have a lot of players who think like coaches. That’s a nice team to coach.” Just five months into the job at Munster, Erasmus is still gauging that potential in his squad but he is hoping he unearths some future coachesin his playing roster, to follow not just in his footsteps but those of his current coaching staff Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones.
“I think we’re building it. People think players have to have a certain personality (to become a good coach) but you can be a very quiet person and be a very good coach. You can be a player that just leads by example but still when he speaks, he doesn’t have to speak a lot but when he does he can rectify things and point things out.
“I think we’re getting there. We’re only five or six months down the line and we’ve got a long way to go. We don’t expect every single player to be like that but those who have the potential I would love to get them involved.”
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