GAVIN RICH: Rassie is sticking with the Boks, albeit in a new role
Rassie Erasmus’s commitment to avoiding the mistakes of the past by ensuring the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup triumph does not continue the trend of then hitting a slump was one of the most positive aspects to come out of a thoroughly memorable seven weeks in Japan.
Siya Kolisi becoming the first black captain to lead the Boks to rugby’s Holy Grail was of course the apex of the positivity that flooded the country after the final whistle sounded on an unforgettable and thoroughly successful Rugby World Cup.
John Smit said it before the game — the fact that Kolisi was the skipper somehow makes this a more significant moment than even those that preceded it in 1995 and 2007.
But all the strides forward would come to nothing if the Boks continue the trend of the past by allowing the momentum of a successful Rugby World Cup campaign to be lost the following year. History reflects that for SA, Rugby World Cup wins have equated to one step forward and two steps back. Perhaps that’s why these events have happened only every 12 years.
It wasn’t just the series loss to the All Blacks that made 1996 seem such an anticlimax in comparison to 1995. There was also plenty of mismanagement and some poor politics that saw the Boks lose the nation-building momentum they had gained with their “One team, one country” slogan in the World Cup year.
In 2008 the Boks came last in what was then the Tri-Nations, and by some distance. It was a year blighted by administrative and coaching blunders, starting with the then president of Saru telling the media the new Bok coach, Peter de Villiers, was not appointed for rugby reasons alone.
The Boks did recover in 2009, but the first year after the Rugby World Cup was a definite step backwards.
Even before Erasmus started publicly discussing his plans going forward, there was already one positive difference between the previous Rugby World Cup-winning campaigns and this one. At least this time the same man who guided the team to victory will be in charge when the following season starts, unlike after 1995 and 2007.
I know there have been reports suggesting Erasmus is stepping aside, but that’s nonsense. What Erasmus may do is appoint a head coach to take charge of some of the responsibilities he has on his plate so he has a bit more time to face down the challenges presented to his broader role of national director of rugby.
But that does not mean Erasmus will be relinquishing control or even stepping away from the team. On a couple of occasions during the World Cup he has assured us that he has no intention of becoming a director of rugby who sits in an office. He wants to be hands-on, he wants to be on the grass coaching. Indeed, that is what he is contracted to do in terms of his six-year deal with SA Rugby.
He told us before the semifinal clash with Wales that he would pit his wits against Wales coach Warren Gatland again in the series against the British and Irish Lions two years from now.
The message there was clear: regardless of whether he has a coach working under him or not, he will be the decision maker and overall boss.
Nothing changes, and particularly not if, as expected, his current right-hand man, the astute and capable Jacques Nienaber, is given the job. Erasmus told some of us on Saturday night during the Bok celebrations at the team hotel that if he does appoint a coach, it will be someone he is aligned with, someone he trusts implicitly and he can feel joined at the hip with. That’s Nienaber, no-one else.
Erasmus wants that to be sorted out quickly too. He’s already counting the days to the start of the Lions series, which he sees as the national team’s next major challenge. On Saturday night that was 614 days.
There is the small matter of a ticker-tape parade standing in the way, but Erasmus would like to call a planning meeting for as early as this Thursday if he can. He doesn’t want the mistakes of the past to be repeated by letting the decision makers and role players dine out on the World Cup win to the extent that the Boks get caught out and overtaken.
Now that he’s ahead, he wants to stay ahead. Erasmus’s commitment to prioritising what happens in the years in between World Cups should be music to everyone’s ears because if the rugby business in SA is going to survive, and the Bok brand is to flourish, every Test match has to be seen as important.
Also important is the task of ensuring the Super Rugby squads are competitive, something that might be a challenge even for Erasmus, but something he tells me he is committed to. Strong franchises mean a strong national team.