When Rassie Erasmus took over as South Africa head coach just a year and a half before the Rugby World Cup, the former Springbok knew he had taken on a “huge task”.
Erasmus already had more than enough on his plate as South Africa’s director of rugby, a role with a wide-ranging remit.
The 47-year-old was still getting his feet under the table in that job when Allister Coetzee’s turbulent reign as head coach was brought to an end in February 2018.
Erasmus agreed to the challenge of turning around the fortunes of a Springboks side who had won only 11 of Coetzee’s 25 games in charge and dropped to sixth in the world rankings.
“It is a huge task to coach the Springboks and I am very privileged,” Erasmus said.
“I really believe we have the players and the rugby IP [intellectual property] to turn things around and to mount a serious challenge at next year’s Rugby World Cup.”
Even the most optimistic fans of the Springboks might have raised eyebrows over such positive comments from the new head coach.
Yet the potential was there to see in a 2-1 home Test series defeat of England, led by Siya Kolisi after he was named as South Africa’s first black captain.
A shock defeat of New Zealand followed last September and South Africa dethroned the All Blacks to win the Rugby Championship just a month before facing Steve Hansen’s side in their first match of the World Cup.
Although Steve Hansen’s two-time defending champions won that World Cup opener at International Stadium Yokohama almost six weeks ago, it is the Springboks who will contest the final with England at the same venue on Saturday.
— Springboks (@Springboks) October 30, 2019
Cheslin Kolbe has established himself as one of the most lethal wings in the world after being handed a debut last September, while Faf de Klerk is among the recalled players to have thrived under Erasmus after the 30-cap eligibility rule for overseas-based stars was scrapped.
Erasmus has turned South Africa into an uncompromising, well-drilled side, possessing relentless and brutal physicality, with explosive backs and busy scrum-half De Klerk pulling the strings.
Hooker Bongi Mbonambi said: “Rassie has made a massive difference. That difference has not just been to the South Africa team because his decisions have affected the whole nation.
“He is a coach who has an honest opinion about every player and he is not someone who does things behind closed doors but does it openly and everyone knows about it.
“Players have respect for someone who is honest and open and says what he is looking for. It gives you more freedom to go out there and express yourself. He does not put you in a box and that has been one of his outstanding features.”
Erasmus will relinquish his head coach duties after the showdown with England this weekend and, regardless of the outcome, he has lifted the gloom and made a proud rugby nation a major force once again.
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