Rassie Erasmus: Brought the Boks back from the brink. Picture: ASHLEY WESTERN / MB MEDIA /GETTY IMAGES
Rassie Erasmus: Brought the Boks back from the brink. Picture: ASHLEY WESTERN / MB MEDIA /GETTY IMAGES

Consider this, as we count down the days to Saturday’s Rugby World Cup (RWC) final against England. Three years ago, in November 2016, the Springboks found themselves in the low-key surroundings of Florence’s Stadio Artemio Franchi for a friendly against Italy, the last match of their 2016 European tour.

Exhausted after a season that started in February, they lost to the Azzurri for the first time. The score was 20-18. It is fair to say that when they got home they weren’t greeted by throngs of fans in replica jerseys singing and asking for autographs.

A couple of weeks ago, a similar Italian side were squashed 49-0 in the World Cup in Japan as the Boks steamrollered their way to a tricky quarterfinal with Jamie Joseph’s Japan. Predicated on continuity of selection, aggressive defence and the Boks’ traditional muscularity, the transformation from a rabble to a proper team was complete.

Eddie Jones, the England head coach. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Eddie Jones, the England head coach. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

If ever you needed an argument for a coach being important in modern-day sport, Rassie Erasmus has provided it. In 2018, when he took over from Allister Coetzee, Springbok rugby was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The players were divided and lacked confidence. Coetzee was tolerated but not respected. The Boks were a fading force.

A place in a World Cup final was a universe away.

While we shouldn’t consider erecting statues to Erasmus at the V&A Waterfront just yet, it’s also worth noting that he’s been sensitive to the political needs of the moment like few other Bok coaches.

Appointing Siya Kolisi captain, for example, was both brave and prudent. Erasmus could have gone for the safer option of making, say, Duane Vermeulen skipper. But, like Jake White making John Smit captain at the beginning of Smit’s international career, Rassie made his choice early. He continued to believe as Kolisi struggled through injury earlier this year.

With Kolisi about to lead the side in the RWC final in a couple of days’ time, you’d have to say Erasmus’s faith has been thoroughly vindicated. Kolisi sings the anthem like few others. And he’s not half bad around the paddock, either.

According to Jeremy Daniel’s unauthorised biography of Kolisi, Against All Odds, he was no stranger to hardship, growing up in the Port Elizabeth township of Zwide. He lost his mother and his granny when he was young, but won a bursary to Grey High in PE.

Siya Kolisi: The Springbok captain sings the national anthem like few others. Picture: Getty images/Stu Forster
Siya Kolisi: The Springbok captain sings the national anthem like few others. Picture: Getty images/Stu Forster

Kolisi’s breakthrough year, according to Daniel, was in 2008. He was in Grade 11 and it was then that he first pulled on the powder-blue first XV jersey of Grey. Dean Carelse, who had been Kolisi’s coach since he was an under-13, was now coaching the Grey first XV and in 2008 they had their first black captain in Bonakele "Bones" Bethe.

Playing enterprising rugby throughout, Grey rampaged through the land, beating Paul Roos Gimnasium, SACS, Rondebosch, Graeme College, Hilton and Michaelhouse. They averaged over 40 points a game, playing 60% of their fixtures away.

Had it not been for a narrow loss to Grey College in the annual derby, Grey High would have won every game and been the school’s most successful side for 30 years.

Kolisi sometimes struggled in the transition from schoolboy to senior rugby, but all that’s forgotten now as the Springboks have the chance to win the RWC for an astonishing third time. In a nation desperate for good news you can almost feel the expectation growing as we get closer to Saturday’s final in Yokohama. Should Cheslin Kolbe’s ankle somehow recover in time for the game, that expectation will reach fever pitch.

But beware of England. Their coach, Eddie Jones, is a wily old soul, who will fancy out-plotting Erasmus. He was Japan’s coach when the Brave Blossoms beat the Boks 34-32 in the 2015 RWC. In flankers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry England have two of the tournament’s form players, and in George Ford and Owen Farrell they have the brains.

Given the respective sides’ unrelenting physicality, it’s likely to be a purists’ final, low on tries and big on monster hits.

For all that, gather round. We’re in for an incredible ride.