Springboks: Why Rassie Erasmus warrants our Kitch Christie-like admiration

Rassie Erasmus (World Rugby Via Getty Images)
Rassie Erasmus (World Rugby Via Getty Images)
  • Rassie Erasmus has become the second RWC-winning Bok coach to courageously wrestle illness demons en route.
  • Kitch Christie had been fighting leukaemia for around a decade and a half ahead of the famous RWC '95 exploits.
  • The SA rugby shutdown since mid-March may have been valuable in restoring Erasmus to fuller strength again.

You hardly needed to be seated alongside him, or listening to his clear-cut instructions to pitch-side, to realise just how much Rassie Erasmus lived and breathed every South African-relevant minute of RWC 2019.

Those who know him closely - or have had even occasional dealings with him - will also be fully aware of just what a conscientious, perceptive and fervent student of the game he is.

Put it this way: you simply never picked up a sense of any inertia on his part, a quandary over mid-match strategy or how the Boks should play particular situations, on the Japan-staged journey to South Africa's fabulous march to the Webb Ellis Cup honours for a third time in history.

He had a strong support staff, let's not forget, who have earned rightful praise for their own hands in the Springbok success.

But even from our living rooms back home, it was apparent just how active, fertile and "in control" his mind was during pressure-point times in World Cup matches, his microphone communications to downstairs clear and assertive in body language whenever witnessed during live television transmissions.

The "16th player" on the pitch for the Boks? Well, not quite, but I wouldn't discount for a second how important Erasmus' spur-of-the-moment ideas or instructions were during live play (and naturally on the pre-game whiteboard) at the tournament.

It is history now that his mental energy levels stayed at premium tier right through to the key showpiece against England at Yokohama, where South Africa outfoxed their foes strategically – mixing up their once box-kick-heavy approach to an unexpected degree – as they played almost certainly their most memorable (entertainment-wise) of three triumphant World Cup final appearances stretching back to 1995.

Now we know, however, that Erasmus also masterminded the conquest while - not in public knowledge at the time - labouring with the effects and chemo-requiring treatment procedures of a complex, potentially life-threatening medical condition.

While not cancerous, microscopic polyangiitis can severely impact key organs like the lungs, kidneys and sinuses.

The US-based Johns Hopkins Vasculitis Centre website notes that the disorder is "a systemic disease confining itself generally not to one specific organ system but rather broadly affecting a patient's 'constitution'".

That is the clearly formidable, worrisome and highly distracting personal issue Erasmus grappled with, even as he fronted both the Bok charge in 2019 (they won the Rugby Championship too, remember) and the burdensome public relations and media aspects of his job as head coach of the national team with customary vigour and professionalism.

It will be gratifying for all South African rugby-lovers to know that his treatment reportedly concluded in March this year and has been considered successful.

For resolve and commitment in the face of his own (then still largely private) adversity, his RWC 2019 achievement ranks right up there with the first Bok head coach to engineer a World Cup triumph: Kitch Christie in 1995, an occasion that coincidentally marks this week its 25th anniversary.

By the time he took command of that legendary campaign in the immediate afterglow of South Africa’s official transition to democracy, it was altogether more common knowledge that Christie - then 55 - had already been grappling, for more than 15 years, the effects of leukaemia.

That his ability to remain in high-profile coaching positions was increasingly being compromised by his illness was underlined by the fact that, only a few months after that historic RWC '95 success, he was noticeably labouring back in his Transvaal duties.

In the book "Bulletproof" (Highbury Media), by Mark Keohane, dual Bok and Transvaal hooker James Dalton recalls: "Kitch was back with Transvaal (for 1996) and was going to split the roles as Super Rugby and Springbok coach, but he wasn't well.

"We lost our first four Super 12 matches in Australia and New Zealand … Kitch struggled because he was sick and Ray Mordt, as his assistant, was in a catch-22 of trying to be the boss but not officially being the boss.

"Kitch's illness meant he was replaced when we got back from tour."

Christie died in April 1998, less than three years after the momentous events of Ellis Park on June 24, 1995, and was posthumously inducted into the then-International Rugby Board hall of fame in 2011, having won all 14 of his Tests in charge of the Boks.

In only a slightly different way, Erasmus has made weighty sacrifices for Springbok rugby clearly at a time when, like Christie well before him, he would have been quite entitled to put the interests of his health, and the recuperation involved, first.

In each instance, it was a case of the masterminds operating pluckily, uncomplainingly at their day jobs with a figurative hand tied quite firmly behind their backs.

Springbok fans should - and no doubt will - be deeply grateful.

I will hardly be alone in earnestly wishing the 47-year-old Erasmus a wholly unimpeded future health-wise now in his altered, more specific capacity as director of rugby.

The forced shutdown of rugby in South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic may well have been a blessing in disguise for the popular product of Despatch.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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