Rassie Erasmus’s legacy is the transformation of the Springboks. It is his greatest victory, writes Mark Keohane.
Rassie Erasmus’s Springboks have achieved great things since 2018, winning the World Cup in 2019, beating the All Blacks in New Zealand, beating England in a home series and winning the British & Irish Lions series in 2021.
But Erasmus’s greatest achievement is the transformation of the Springboks because he is the first coach of the Springboks to have crushed the stereotype of how transformation had been applied.
Erasmus, in the craziest of rugby weeks, was on Wednesday evening banned for the game for two months with immediate effect. World Rugby had charged Erasmus with bringing the game into disrepute for his criticism of Australian referee Nic Berry in a 62-minute video that highlighted Berry getting 26 decisions wrong in the 1st Springboks Test against the British & Irish Lions.
The video was leaked and went viral.
World Rugby has never seen anything wrong with Berry’s officiating, but rather took exception to Erasmus’s criticism.
Erasmus on Saturday should have been coaching the Springboks at Twickenham from the touchline, in the guise of a water carrier. Who knows where he will be on Saturday, but what I do know is that he will be in every player’s heart and that every player will leave everything on the field in playing for South Africa’s National Director of Rugby and 2019 World Cup-winning coach.
#Justice for Rassie will be their manta and the only way for them to do their talking will be in the type of performance they produce against England.
Jacques Nienaber, Erasmus’s trusted ally and 2IC for the last decade, is the Springbok coach, but the man who determines everything about the Springboks is Erasmus, as the Director of Rugby.
And it is Erasmus, who on his return to South Africa from Ireland in 2018, made transformation of the Springboks a way of rugby life and not a once-off Test occasion.
Erasmus spoke of black and white. Where others had quivered at the mention of black and white and transformation, he confronted the subject head on. When he spoke to his first training group of Springboks, he introduced the topic. He asked questions from the players and then he made statements.
Erasmus stressed that the only way the Springboks, as a brand, would have a future in South Africa was if they were transformed and an extension of the country’s people and if this transformed team won regularly, which would always make them contenders for the biggest titles.
Erasmus turned to Siya Kolisi as his captain and the Erasmus/Kolisi era started at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg, with the most stunning win against England.
The Boks, who turned a 24-3 deficit after just 20 minutes, into a 41-39 win, were at that stage the most transformed Bok match-day squad in the country’s history. Since then, the numbers, among players of colour, have increased even more because of Erasmus’s belief that for any player to succeed, there has to be an opportunity created in an environment that speaks to success stories more than it does failure.
Erasmus, whenever we spoke about transformation, impressed on me that it was so much more than a numbers game. It was about opportunity and game time. He would call it a ‘minutes’ game.
At the beginning of 2018, he said to me that the most telling statement when assessing the transformation of the Springboks would be in the number of minutes each black Bok would play and not simply how many black players were in a starting XV or a match-day squad.
He guaranteed that those players who got chosen for the Springboks were not going to be there to create an illusion of transformation. Rather their playing time would symbolize the substance in the transformation.
Players could only improve with game time, said Erasmus and players could only prove themselves with game time.
Game time, he said, was not five minutes at the end of a Test when the game had already been won or lost.
He said every player in his squad had to be trusted to start a Test and that, given the tortured history of transformation in the Springboks, black players especially had to know that they had a coach who trusted them and who believed in them.
The trust and belief, he added, was in how many minutes these men played.
He had done the math on black player Test match minutes in 2017 and it was disturbing, he told me.
It would not happen under his watch, he said. Black players would be trusted to win matches and to win the biggest Test matches.
Erasmus has always delivered on this promise, from that opening home Test against England and even a week before that when a second-string Springboks played a once-off Test against Wales in Washington DC.
Those men of colour who have played for Erasmus since 2018 and who play for Nienaber in Saturday’s final Springboks Test of the season have also delivered on their promise to translate opportunity into excellence through their performances.
None have epitomized the success of the Springboks more than Kolisi, as a player and as a captain in a squad whose ethos is built on brutal honesty, to each other and within.
‘You can’t bullshit yourself,’ said Erasmus. ‘If we can get to a place where we are honest with ourselves about ourselves, we will be in a good space and if we talk transformation, let’s talk playing minutes.’
Never before has a Springboks squad been in such a good space and never before have black Springboks played so many minutes of Test rugby, and that is Erasmus’s greatest victory.