Rassie: eternal man of mystery
It says a fair bit about a key hallmark of his reign that when Rassie Erasmus quit his post as Western Province’s director of coaching after some four years, the public here learned about it first in an Afrikaans newspaper, matter-of-factly through his lawyer Frikkie Erasmus.
And boom ... just like that, Erasmus was gone; his vision for the great renaissance in the shadow of Table Mountain dismantled and placed in a suitcase, ready for transfer to some undisclosed new destination.
There was no personal appearance -- not immediately, anyway -- to explain to a startled and probably confused Newlands faithful precisely why he was leaving, the grapes of his supposedly budding crop frustratingly unpicked. (Or read: no Currie Cup or Super Rugby title yet installed in the dormant cabinet of a former superpower, despite various brave near-misses.)
His sympathisers – and ironically he clearly has several of them in the media, a forum he has been strangely averse to in recent times – have been quick to point to a perceived trend in the corridors of power at WP Rugby, one that suggests quality rugby brains find themselves forced to break the chains, eventually, of incompetence and archaic administrative methods around them.
It certainly seems an argument that carries robust weight, even if there are also good, likeable and loyal people in the Boundary Road hierarchy.
Or is that an all-too-simple copout? Did he perhaps just not stamp his considerable authority forcefully enough in the compound of alleged dinosaurs? Could he not quite bring himself to be properly ... well, understood?
Province rugby has taken a battering, particularly of late, with the unfortunate Saracens/Cape Town Stadium fiasco and an infuriating exodus of experienced, crucial players or at least popular squad personalities like Jaque Fourie, Francois Louw and Anton van Zyl to badly undermine the work being done on the opposite pole to bring through callow but exciting youths.
Losing Fourie -- a little parochially still branded the world’s best rugby player by some, but a truly heavyweight strategic component nevertheless -- seemed to occur with an almost spooky nonchalance. Oh well, just another good ‘un bites the dust!
Where Erasmus fits in with the leakage of “hardebaard” personnel is a matter mostly for conjecture, as is so much else around his stint in the Western Cape.
Some reports by authoritative critics are suggesting consistently swirling rumours that he and Stormers/WP head coach Allister Coetzee had some notable fallouts have been exaggerated.
Hmm, the grapevine I subscribe to still whispers with some conviction that at the very least, the proverbial left hand wasn’t always sure what the right was doing, certainly in matters like player contract affairs. My information is that there have, indeed, been some breakdowns in transparency among the brains trust.
I don’t especially lean either way in “Cape Town 2007-2012” judgment on the Despatch-born Johan Erasmus, 39: I’ve never really felt emphatically able to, and I suspect others may feel the same.
He’s an enigma, that’s for sure.
My earliest experiences of him, gratifyingly, came when I had the relative privilege of following him around as a player “in camp” for the Springboks for a few days, for purposes of a diary-type magazine feature.
He was a cheery, bubbly, forthcoming soul, seldom far from his similarly genial close mate, the scrumhalf Werner “Smiley” Swanepoel, and the thought struck me that Erasmus might well be strong material for Bok captaincy -- something he later did, but only fleetingly and with a great willingness to end it if I remember correctly.
When he first came to Newlands in his new, cerebral post, he quickly held a refreshing, well-attended evening at the stadium with one of the WP supporters’ clubs, outlining his philosophy and even using some fascinating video footage of match-play to back up his thoughts. Why, even some journalists were invited!
It seemed the dawn of exciting times.
But almost since then, it seems as if he retreated, consciously or otherwise, ever more profoundly back within himself, shirking public attention and certainly ducking the press even more resolutely.
Even at Stormers training sessions, Erasmus often seemed happiest cantering around amidst his beloved Under-21s, leaving Coetzee and others to handle the communications spotlight ... perhaps even lopsidedly to the level of the players themselves?
Like it or not, the media in all its expanding forms remains an important conduit to the rugby public, yet the newspaper stories following his resignation have placed heavy emphasis on his “struggle to handle the constant media pressure”.
I would have thought this simply went with the turf. In sport, as in other positions of mass-interest responsibility, it just does. I can’t think of any good reason why Rassie couldn’t have deftly handled it, and bred a climate of mutual respect and trust.
Nor do I see why directors of rugby should especially be allowed to exist in luxurious isolation from the rugby public who, at the end of the day, fund their salaries.
Yet, on Erasmus’s beat, seasoned local journalists were often shooed away, for instance, from lineout drills, kept to a strictly demarcated pathway area at the Bellville team training venue, presumably for daft fear that they might somehow devilishly spill the beans to the Bulls or Lions that every now and then Tiaan Liebenberg may just – shock, horror -- bypass Andries Bekker on the throw.
To what extent such a relationship may exist these days I do not know, but there was a time when Erasmus was a keen disciple of the controversial Andre Markgraaff, another smart rugby brain when he put his mind squarely to it but one who seemed to get his kicks mostly in an environment of suspicion, conspiracy and intrigue – maybe self-installed.
I wonder if was instructive this week when, on a Cape Talk radio show ostensibly to talk cricket, drive-time host John Maytham made the point as he introduced me that he was surprised the lines hadn’t been buzzing as he anticipated with call-ins over the Erasmus exit. Do the public regard him with a certain ambivalence?
Sometimes I have contemplated also the possibility of a certain symbolism to Erasmus’s famous use of his stadium rooftop “disco lights” during his Cheetahs tenure.
There he was, high and mighty in the skies, detached from the bubbling cauldron of activity below as others instead felt the heat of his beams.
For his own good, maybe he should descend from his ladder a little more regularly, dancing in the shafts of light to make us all understand him that crucial bit more?
Until he does, he may simply stay our national man of mystery. And as such, much of the jury will remain largely “out” on his abilities and style of management.
He’s a bright man, of that I have very little doubt. Just perhaps a bit too seduced by a mistaken idea that hordes of people are determinedly out to thwart or undermine him?
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