Side Entry: Erasmus’ work on Boks has been miraculous

Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Two years ago, I wrote a column whingeing about nerds taking over rugby.

The general gist of the missive was how you could no longer argue about the game in a pub without some bespectacled wimp (come to think of it, that sounds an awful lot like me) diving headlong into his smartphone for stats with which to contradict you.

Of the few people who liked the article was one claiming to be Rassie Erasmus, who texted to say: “We worry so much how we talk and the stats and the ‘culture’, etc! The main thing is to coach hard and play hard! Lekker aand.”

I say “claiming” because I didn’t buy that it really was the then newly installed SA Rugby director of rugby on account of having written a few columns questioning how he came to acquire the messiah status to be both head coach and director of rugby – on an unprecedented six-year contract.

But it was Erasmus, and the main take away from that text was the simplicity with which he approaches his work.

Erasmus took over coaching the Boks when they were having so many indabas that they were probably having a conference about whether the fly half should pass to the inside centre.

At the time of his introduction to the media, he began most of his sentences with: “It would be stupid of me [of us] to ...”

That may have sounded to most like the man feted for his lateral thinking was coming across all superior, but that phrase came from a refusal to reinvent the wheel by trying to be too clever.

And now, less than two years later, a Springbok team having to get used to taking 50 points from the All Blacks, and losing to such rugby luminaries as Italy and Argentina, will go to the World Cup as genuine contenders to win.

At the heart of that is the blinding commonsense Erasmus preached in his text.

It may not be palatable to increasingly erudite South African rugby fans currently applying to be card-carrying All Blacks supporters, but Springbok rugby is at its best when a few predictable things are in place.

Those things are a beastly pack of forwards featuring a rabid lock (think Bakkies Botha and Eben Etzebeth) and a long-haired one who honestly thinks he’s a back (Victor Matfield and RG Snyman); a defence so abrasive it’s actually the team’s best playmaker; and a fly half who nails his goal kicks once a combination of the pack and defence has suffocated the opposition into giving away penalties.

To those who like their transformation to be a numbers game – 50%, to be precise – Erasmus has tackled this neglected facet of rugby head-on.

We may still scratch our heads when he starts nine black players one weekend and three the next, but there’s nothing token about the black front row of Beast Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane, for example.

The mistrust of Erasmus’ “politics” runs deep in the black rugby community – there are many who still think Siya Kolisi’s captaincy is an elaborate ruse to get buy-in from black fans – but players such as Nyakane and Elton Jantjies have been backed since they were fringe players, and now they are important squad players.

A young coach like Mzwandile Stick has been brought back from the ridicule of being made a scapegoat under Allister Coetzee to becoming a coach with a contribution to make.

The general message has been that rugby is the main currency in a country where it can be third on the priority list.

Erasmus has also done away with typical South African rugby stereotypes around size with the inclusion of wee fellas who punch way above their weight in Kwagga Smith, Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies and Mr “Size of the fight in the dog” himself, Cheslin Kolbe.

The clarity with which this was all made was such that the World Cup squad being announced tomorrow won’t be a surprise.

The Boks may not win the World Cup, but what Erasmus has done with the squad in the past couple of years has been nothing short of miraculous.

Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa

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