Team Rassie: It’s the shy guys

Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Put it down to coincidence, if you wish.

But some of the more successful and enduring of pro-era Springbok coaches following the legendary, maiden World Cup-winning Kitch Christie have also been men with a certain ease, openness and charisma in dealing with the press.

Say what you like about modern, increasingly bewildering and multi-pronged arms of the media, but they do still serve as the major conduit between team management and the rugby public.

And characters like Nick Mallett, Jake White, Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer, seemingly well cognisant of that, were often enough – and naturally pleasingly to us – expansive and animated for the most part in their communication with the fourth estate.

By contrast, the likes of Harry Viljoen, Andre Markgraaff and Rudolf Straeuli were rather more reserved (in some cases to the point of suspicion) in their rapport with the press … and had bumpier and/or shorter tenures in the hot seat.

The chutzpah and personal confidence of Mallett, of course, is especially legendary, which is why he has morphed into such a celebrated television analyst, and somehow it seemed a far from unimportant hallmark in his ascent to a Bok win percentage rate of 71.05 - extremely giddy heights by recent standards.

I won’t easily forget my first, up-close experience of Mallett operations as the Bok coach.

Only a few weeks after his team had rampaged gloriously through Europe in the first phase of his tenure at the end of 1997, I was with him as a passenger in an SA Rugby car, en route to a township rugby development launch just outside Cape Town.

Either forgetting my presence in the back seat or not caring too much (and thus satisfied I would not breach any confidentiality), he chatted disarmingly bluntly from the front with an aide on his cell-phone, about the merits but mostly demerits of a certain Super Rugby player.

Let’s just say I quickly became aware that Player X, much-touted in some regional sections of the media, was unlikely to feature in Mallett’s plans for 1998 or beyond, and he duly didn’t.

De Villiers, of course, even as he presided over some fine results including pretty regular home and away triumphs over the All Blacks, could take colourful, expansive use of language at press briefings to quirky extremes: I was at the famous/infamous one in Johannesburg during the British and Irish Lions series of 2009 where he managed to combine analogies of ballet tutus and the strange possibility of eye-gouging lions (the animal kind) in the bushveld.

But his media opportunities were nothing if not entertaining, and Meyer – to my deathbed, I will insist he got a raw deal when pushed from his post, with far too much emphasis placed on a freak day in Brighton – was forthcoming too, albeit in slightly more conventional ways.

The now second-last Bok coach made a habit of going the extra mile to ensure journalists got occasional one-on-one time with him, and even in his broader press conferences he was a passionate, deep and clear explainer of his tactics and selections, whether or not they would later be deemed wise.

Meyer remains, almost always, up for a genial chat on the sport he is so crazily (his self-description, actually) affectionate about.

On Thursday, a new Springbok coaching brains trust, and perhaps not before time, was named for the period up to and including the France-staged World Cup in 2023, a lengthy vote of confidence which is usually to be commended.

It contains no bombshells, its frontline composition having been accurately guessed well in advanced, but a pretty formidable, gratifying amount of rugby grey matter, with Erasmus duly confirmed as dual director of rugby and the head coach.

You might also venture, to some extent, that his group amounts to a collective of shy “bookworms”, clever and deeply industrious fellows more comfortable behind the glare of spotlights (in Erasmus’s case, those have sometimes been novel, multicoloured globes at the top of a stand) than in the blink-inducing warmth in front of them.

We know that Jacques Nienaber is almost indisputably one of the premier defence specialists in the world, although he is extraordinary seldom quoted or even pictured in the mass media.

Similarly, Swartland-born scrummaging expert and former France tighthead Pieter de Villiers doesn’t traditionally put a hearty right shoulder into media dealings, whilst Mzwandile Stick also very unusually departs from the expected, the bog-standard in that area.

Of the premier quartet, head honcho Erasmus, the classy, attack-minded former Bok flanker, is probably the most obliging when he wants to be, or it is absolutely necessary for him to leave his study.

On the few past occasions we have had specific dealings, I have always found him engaging and pleasant, which does leave you a little puzzled and disappointed as to why he actually appears in public/press on a fairly spartan basis.

He seemed to “slip in”, for instance, before Christmas, from Ireland to assume his director of rugby berth with SA Rugby, rather than in the more common fashion worldwide of such an appointment being greeted with some kind of official fanfare.

When you do hear from him, though, it can be inspiring.

I was present once, very soon after his 2008 appointment as director of rugby at Western Province, when he gave a video backed-up presentation to a Newlands supporters’ group, demonstrating from a prior Stormers match certain observations that he was clearly keen on acting upon to positive effect.

It was marvellously educative and scientific, yet unpretentiously so, to all who watched and listened.

Keeping media and public appearances to a relative minimum will barely be noticed or frowned upon, naturally, if things go swimmingly early doors in the Erasmus regime.

It is when the terrain gets a tad rockier, something almost inevitable at times for a national sports coach, that public “fronting” can be more necessary, and rightly near insisted upon.

I do hope Team Rassie, maybe a little against the instincts of its membership, won’t lose all sight of the fact that honest media and public relations are also a key acknowledgement of accountability and transparency.

But as for the “rugby IP” on his panel, as Erasmus called it himself on Thursday … well, there’s heaps of it, which is a damned good start.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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