Cape Town - It is a titanic early clash at the 2019 Rugby World Cup ... and the Springboks will have sufficient intellectual clout from head coach Rassie Erasmus to give the All Blacks, masterminded by revered counterpart Steve Hansen, a serious run for their money.
That is the belief of Peter Bills, veteran international rugby scribe and recent author of All Black-geared book The Jersey: The Secrets Behind The World’s Most Successful Team.
The Boks open their account at the Japanese-hosted event with a Pool B cracker against the defending champions at Yokohama on September 21.
Bills was given generous access to the views of Hansen, who steps down after RWC following some seven years as All Black coach, during his research for the book.
Speaking during a visit to the Cape last week, the writer said Hansen headed up a formidable brains trust, although the possibility of assistant Ian Foster fairly seamlessly assuming the reins post-World Cup might depend on New Zealand winning it for an extraordinary third time in a row.
In the meantime, however, 59-year-old Hansen might have his hands full repelling the challenge this year of rivals like Erasmus, who is in just his second season as Bok coach and significantly younger at 46.
“What you get with Rassie is very deep pragmatism ... you get a pride, a real demand for pride, and if you don’t show it, you won’t be in that team for too long. That’s a big (similarity) with Steve Hansen.
“I think he’s (Erasmus) a guy who wants 100 percent, wants you to wear your heart on your sleeve, give everything. But all within the confines of organisation in the modern game, of course: you don’t get far on adrenaline alone and Erasmus knows that.
“You won’t win a World Cup that way. You need that pragmatic, essential quality that he has prepared assiduously in every sense. He makes sure exactly what is expected of his players.
“I don’t think he stands on rooftops and shouts to the media about what he wants, but he is a very shrewd coach; right choice at right time.”
What did Bills learn of NZ counterpart Hansen’s character in his exclusive access to him?
“He totally masks his feelings, publicly. He’s not dispassionate, though … be sure not to confuse that. A lot calmer and less animated than someone like (a Bok predecessor) Heyneke Meyer, although everyone is different and those two are still friends … talk quite often, I believe.
“Hansen is a guy who I think goes straight to the point, like an arrow to the heart. If you’re failing to do something he will say ‘I want this, I don’t want that: what don’t you understand about it?’
“He is so direct; doesn’t waste energy or emotion. When you watch the All Blacks train under him it is all so business-like.”
Asked whether Hansen commanded the type of aura which soccer’s Sir Alex Ferguson once enjoyed as Manchester United boss, Bills said: “I think probably that’s a very good analogy ... he is the sort not to suffer fools.
“Steve reveals a certain amount but he won’t reveal everything ... to you, me or anybody else. But he did open up a bit about his family and so on. A very interesting figure.
“I raise the suggestion in the book about whether he might be employed further, once he goes as All Black coach, in some sort of overlord capacity.
“Whether he would want such a hands-on role down the line, I am not sure. But there must be a role somewhere for all that knowledge. I’d be surprised if he said a blanket ‘that’s it, no more rugby’. He might want a year or so’s break, but it’s in his blood.”
Just as Hansen ascended to the All Black coaching throne after earning his stripes on the support-staff ladder, would Foster represent a natural progression to the role for the post-2019 national side?
Bills says: “I’m pretty sure that’s what the New Zealand Rugby Union would like ... there’s a ‘but’, though.
“I think that in the last 12 months the gap has narrowed between New Zealand and the rest. On a given day, several countries could knock them over in a World Cup.
“South Africa could, if they get the bit between the teeth, also England, Wales, maybe Ireland, although I think they have dipped a bit this season.
“So if New Zealand don’t win the World Cup, I think their original idea of backing another guy who has been deep in the system for a long time, seven years, might just start to be reviewed. Particularly if Warren Gatland was still available: he’s just won the Grand Slam, and if Wales even go on to win the World Cup, would they really not consider him?
“They are not like that. They are ruthless and pragmatic. But ideally, yes, they would love Foster to take over.”
*The Jersey: The Secrets Behind The World’s Most Successful Team, by Peter Bills, is published by Pan Macmillan and available at leading SA bookstores. Recommended retail price R290.