In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok centre GRANT ESTERHUIZEN talks about South Africa’s midfield options, Pieter-Steph du Toit staying put for now and the Sanzaar alliance.
Sport24 asked: Do you think the Sanzaar alliance is under threat?
Grant Esterhuizen: My personal opinion is that the Sanzaar alliance is beneficial for all parties involved and provides a strong level of competition. I don’t think the Sanzaar alliance will change, but can’t see South Africa being part of it in the near future. By that I mean this season because we don’t boast the same infrastructure that either Australia or New Zealand do and have a completely different health system when it comes to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. This year is going to be a mess so we will see domestic competitions continue for the immediate future, but once the dust has settled I see tournaments returning to normal.
Sport24 asked: How do you reflect on your seven-Test career?
Grant Esterhuizen: Playing for the Springboks was the absolute pinnacle of my career. In 1999, I tore some ligaments and missed out on the World Cup. I came back nicely in 2000 with a new-found discipline and debuted for the Springboks against the All Blacks. My first stint with the Springboks was a Tri-Nations series. Nick Mallett was our coach and he was phenomenal. I don’t think I ever played under a more passionate coach and have a lot of time and respect for him. As things progressed, Harry Viljoen took over from Mallett and I fell out of favour with the former, who was looking for a more stylish side. I failed to make the cut under Viljoen, who had his ups and downs as a head coach. The reality is that I didn’t fit his profile. I’m pretty disappointed that I didn’t play more Tests and would have loved to.
Sport24 asked: How do you rate the De Allende/Am centre pairing?
Grant Esterhuizen: To be totally honest, the last couple of years I haven’t been a big Damian de Allende fan. However, last year he actually started playing some very decent rugby and he was really good for club and country. He was phenomenal at the 2019 Rugby World Cup as he was really solid and did exactly what he needed to do. Both him and Lukhanyo Am are extremely talented players and the roles that were set out for them were very clear. Damian is a very strong ball-carrier, whereas Lukhanyo is a good ball-distributor. You can have talented individuals in teams, but if they don’t know what they have to do and are always given free rein it won’t work properly. Their successful execution also came down to effective coaching. Rassie Erasmus and his crew did their homework and everyone knew what they had to do on the pitch and the players followed through with it really well. In terms of midfield, first and foremost, for me, it’s about defence and that channel needs to be very solid. The incumbent Bok centres are very good on defence and were very solid at the World Cup. In terms of the midfield, it’s a very challenging position because you need to change your style of rugby from season to season. You can’t stick to the same plan for more than two seasons because the level of analysis is more advanced than ever before. Rugby is a much faster game these days and it’s exciting to see that the game is going to new levels.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of Rassie Erasmus’ career path?
Grant Esterhuizen: We were big mates during our playing careers. Rassie was a really outstanding player and we got along very well. He was a hard worker on and off the field and his knowledge of the game was phenomenal. He was always thinking outside the box and, even when we were playing, he was coming up with ideas in terms of how we could manipulate certain games. He would then go study the rules and see where the loopholes were. Even as a player, he was always thinking differently about the game and that is what makes him such a good coach today. After matches, we would sit and have our kontiki and a couple of beers and then Rassie would promptly head off to do his analysis on the game. At that time, there wasn’t anything like that in the world. He would break down the game, along with every player and position. Fast forward to today and I believe rugby is a business and needs to be driven by someone who understands what that business is about. Rassie is definitely that guy. He understands rugby very well and its complexities. He is aware of the human side of the game as well and realises that you can’t always pitch up on the field at 100%. Rassie’s management team are very skilled at analysing players and I think the whole system is healthy. Every player understands what is expected of him and when that happens they perform well. There are no grey areas which is really encouraging for Springbok rugby.
Sport24 asked: Will the All Blacks be smarting about being second best?
Grant Esterhuizen: The All Blacks are second in the World Rugby rankings behind the Springboks at the moment, but are always a great brand. In terms of South Africa and New Zealand, I don’t know who is in the lead at the moment when it comes to brand. I will always be an avid Springbok supporter, but I’m a great fan of the All Black brand. I admire the way in which the All Blacks play the game. Off the field, they are very humble but on field they possess an element of arrogance. There is a fine line between humility and arrogance, but when you are good at something you have to have a certain confidence about you. I think Rassie has that same type of attitude with the Springboks. He has the presence of being quite humble when it comes to the media and is not very outspoken, but he knows what he is talking about. In terms of embracing social media, Rassie has realised that you have to adapt to the times. Using platforms like Twitter and Instagram is probably the easiest way to get your voice out there, particularly during the time of Covid-19. Social media is a very strong platform to get your message across but it has to be used responsibly.
Sport24 asked: How do the Springboks avoid post-World Cup blues?
Grant Esterhuizen: The Springboks can’t really manage whether or not they experience a post-World Cup slump, as was the case after 1995. The fact of the matter is that you can’t stay on top of the wave for five years. You can’t have non-stop success, and a dip in form is inevitable. You can't keep the same players in the same shape for five years and expect the same level of consistency. You have to continually add on elements and allow for succession planning. In that regard, the New Zealand teams have always been doing it very cleverly. They retain the majority of their players and very gently add one or two extra players from a young age and start getting those guys ready for big rugby. At the moment, our Springbok side is quite a young group which is great. I’m sure Rassie is going to try to keep the core group of guys together for the next five years and then get some decent add-ons. There are going to be a host of talented players who are going to be coming through the ranks. However, you can’t expect to be on top of world rugby for five years consecutively. For argument’s sake, what happens very often with New Zealand is that for three or four years they will be dominating and then the year of the World Cup they are just not what they used to be. It was the case last year, where the other teams managed to catch up to them.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Pieter-Steph du Toit staying put?
Grant Esterhuizen: I read last week that there was talk of him signing a deal with Montpellier, but it’s great news he has committed his future to WP Rugby until at least 2021. He is still very young and I’m sure that at some stage of his career he will definitely make an appearance for some or other European side - be it in England, France or Ireland. Nowadays, there are so many possibilities for players. My move to France came about because the Lions dropped me half way through the Super Rugby season and they wouldn’t let me go play for the Cheetahs. I had wanted to remain with the Lions but, after that happened, I knew I had to make a change. I opted to play in France as I had played there previously as a medical joker. It was right at the start of the professional era so my earnings weren’t exponential when I signed for Clermont, but a lot better than they were in South Africa... At some stage, Du Toit will have to weigh up his options because even though the French league is a vibrant competition, you play a lot of rugby. It’s a cutthroat business being a professional sportsman in Europe and especially in rugby because the clubs belong to companies. In other words, it means the company’s boss is the head honcho of the club.