Captain Siya Kolisi and Rassie Erasmus of the Springboks pose with the trophy after winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SYDNEY SESHBEDI/GALLO IMAGES
Captain Siya Kolisi and Rassie Erasmus of the Springboks pose with the trophy after winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SYDNEY SESHBEDI/GALLO IMAGES

When the SA challenge in the new Super Rugby season was launched last week it should have inspire thought on what the Springboks have that the franchises don’t.

Not that it requires too much thinking. It comes down to the national body having a director of rugby who has proper power and is entitled to make real decisions on how to do his job effectively.

Rassie Erasmus saved SA rugby. It was he, and he alone, who dragged the Boks back from the edge of the abyss and guided them to a World Cup title that gives SA rugby the appearance of being healthy.

I use the word “appearance” because while the Boks are on the right track under Erasmus, the jury is still out on the rest of SA rugby. The sport is riding the momentum wave created by World Cup euphoria, but once the Super Rugby season starts the focus could shift to more sobering realities.

It was easy to glibly ignore that Western Province were struggling to pay their water bill when the World Cup was on. It was easy to forget the huge challenges, not all financial, faced by all the local Super Rugby franchises. In three months' time, or a month into the new season, the realities might be harder to ignore.

The Boks have the heavyweight and experienced coach that all the franchises generally lack. More importantly though, they have a coach who is master of his own destiny after being given the authority to make decisions that his predecessors weren’t.

The first big step in the SA rugby rescue act was when president Mark Alexander and CEO Jurie Roux flew to Ireland to persuade Erasmus to come home. It took some convincing on their part as Erasmus was happy in Ireland, but Erasmus has told me he was driven his concern that it was probably a case of “now or never” if he was ever going to help the Boks come right.

He felt that if it was left for another year, even half a year, SA rugby would have become such a mess that it would be irreparable.

The Stormers have the playing resources but have done nothing more than mark time for four years

Key to how the negotiation turned out would have been Erasmus’ position of strength. SA rugby needed him more than he needed SA rugby. He could drive a hard bargain and secure the powers he needed if he was going to pull off the salvage act needed and then go to the next step of ensuring sustained consistency.

He became that rare thing in SA — a proper director of rugby. Gert Smal thought he was a proper director of rugby, responsible for the hiring and firing of the coaches at WP when he was appointed in 2013. In 2015, he realised he wasn’t when he had the carpet pulled from under him when he tried to appoint John Mitchell as Stormers head coach.

As the man in charge of rugby, Smal should have decided this. Then he could have been a director in the proper sense, meaning that he could be held ultimately responsible for on-field successes and failures. A coach with experience of a club directorship in England once told me that over there the defining thing about being a director is that you are recognised as the person who has his neck on the block. The director is where the buck stops. Erasmus would have experienced that at Munster.

Where would Smal and the Stormers be now had they appointed Mitchell at the end of 2015? It’s hypothetical of course, but it is hard to imagine them not progressing further than they have. The Stormers have the playing resources but have done nothing more than mark time for four years.

But it is not just the WP system that is flawed. Mitchell moved on from the Bulls after he became its director of rugby after realising quickly that he wasn’t vested with the power to make system changes he felt were necessary.

And that is the main stumbling block to any strong Erasmus-type character coming in and doing at a local union what Erasmus has done with the Boks. It is why most of the local coaching groups for the new season seem so lightweight and inexperienced.

Erasmus intends helping local franchises get up to speed by working with them himself, but after his experience at WP a decade ago he will know he has his work cut out. Coaches at that level just don’t have the power and autonomy within their organisations that he has in his.

Until that is changed, coaches such as the Stormers’ John Dobson will continue spending more of their daylight hours butting heads with the people upstairs than coaching rugby. The Super Rugby franchises will keep failing.