How Rassie masked illness at the 2019 Rugby World Cup
Nothing in the build-up to the sport’s premier event suggested that Rassie Erasmus was living with a potentially life-threatening disease
It was thought the sheer scope of his effort in securing a third Rugby World Cup title for the Springboks in 2019 could not be overstated.
Now it has emerged that Rassie Erasmus‚ then head coach and now SA Rugby’s director of rugby‚ did so under the spectre of a potentially life-threatening condition.
It has been reported that Erasmus was diagnosed with microscopic polyangiitis with granulomatosis‚ a rare autoimmune disease, in early 2019.
Though the disease is not cancerous, it can damage vital organs, including the kidneys and lungs‚ and also harm sinuses and trachea.
Erasmus stayed mum about his condition and quietly went about his business plotting the Springboks’ path to World Cup glory. There was nothing in the team’s build-up to the World Cup to suggest that Erasmus was operating under enormous physical strain.
Having beaten the All Blacks in Wellington the previous year‚ the Boks in 2019 returned to the same venue and earned a priceless draw en route to claiming their first Rugby Championship crown. They last won the forerunner to that competition, the Tri-Nations‚ in 2009.
The Boks departed for the World Cup earlier than most teams as they had an engagement against Japan in Saitama 15 days before they were due to start their campaign against the All Blacks in Yokohama. It meant the team‚ if they reached the semifinals‚ would be away from home for 19 weeks, which would have put unimaginable strain on the coach.
However‚ by the week leading up to their World Cup opener against the All Blacks there were no visible signs of the condition Erasmus was battling. He was as jovial as ever. He would crack a smile and genially go about his business when the cameras were rolling.
When they weren’t‚ he would generously give of his time‚ over and above the prescribed slots in World Cup guidelines for coaches’ interactions with the media. During those, Erasmus’s perennial‚ obsessive pursuit of the margins that can potentially give his team an advantage were all too apparent.
His vision remained unaltered and he displayed clarity of thought in challenging those around him to tune into the rarefied frequency at which a coaching high priest operates. There were no signs of a man battling physical upheaval or one who was trying to keep his wits about him.
He certainly did not look like someone who had been subjected to chemotherapy.
Whether it was devising strategies to master the slippery ball in the humid conditions early in the tournament‚ winning over the Japanese public‚ getting referee Jérome Garcès to view the Boks through more sympathetic eyes‚ or the audacious manner in which he placed his faith in the deployment of the team’s “Bomb Squad”‚ Erasmus unflinchingly remained at the top of his game.
Of course, his condition will invite comparisons with former Springbok World Cup-winning coach Kitch Christie, who succumbed to cancer in 1998. After plotting the Boks’ path to glory in 1995, Christie took charge of Transvaal in Super Rugby the following year while continuing his role as national coach until he was too ill to continue.
If there was anything nagging away at Erasmus in 2019‚ it did not manifest itself physically. What did show was his relentless quest to make the Boks the best.
His legend will now extend to new frontiers. He will be known as the man who didn’t just manage the Rugby World Cup-winning Bok team‚ but was at the same time battling a rare and potentially deadly disease.