Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - With the re-appointment of John Smit and Victor Matfield as captain and vice-captain respectively being expected, the biggest step forward from the Springboks at the two day planning session that has just ended in Cape Town was the announcement that Rassie Erasmus will be joining the management.
Indeed, if you consider that the biggest short-fall for the Boks last year was the absence of heavyweight expertise in the technical/strategy department, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Erasmus’ secondment to the Boks is the biggest step forward taken by the Boks since Peter de Villiers took over at the start of 2008 and immediately re-engaged Smit from French club Toulon.
Erasmus will take up the position of technical adviser, with Derik Coetzee, Jake White’s fitness adviser at the previous World Cup in 2007, is the other new addition to the management. Coetzee will work alongside Neels Liebel. Erasmus’ appointment is on a temporary basis as he is still under contract to Western Province until the end of next year.
The appointment of Erasmus was supposed to happen before the last end of year tour but was held up because there wasn’t enough time for contractual issues to be cleared up between Erasmus, his WP employers and the South African Rugby Union.
It is understood that his position will enable Erasmus to play a key role in determining strategy, and if that is the case, and Erasmus and the sometimes volatile De Villiers can establish an easy working relationship, then the Boks will have plugged the biggest weakness that has held them back and prevented them from playing to their full potential for most of the past four years.
It was no secret last year that a number of coaches were approached by SARU and by De Villiers, but if Erasmus was the only outsider prepared to join the current set-up then, as it turns out, De Villiers and his employers have hit bulls eye for outside of maybe Heyneke Meyer there is no other rugby brain in this country to challenge that of Erasmus.
It became clear on the end of year tour that the players, once they had been canvassed on the subject, were eager for Erasmus’ tactical acumen to be added to a management staff that had been badly caught out last year by the tactical innovations made by the other Tri-Nations teams.
By having Erasmus in the set-up the Boks will be able to draw on the expertise of a coach who has been active in the Super Rugby season. Although Allister Coetzee is the Stormers coach and calls the shots in selection, Erasmus has become directly involved in the management and formulation of strategy again after taking a hiatus during last year’s Currie Cup.
He is therefore at the coal-face as a coach and few of his contemporaries or adversaries can match his ability to quickly pick up and anticipate the change in trends when they happen. Perhaps one of his most unpublicized strengths though is his apparent complete lack of ego, something that perhaps emanates from the fact that unlike most other coaches he enjoyed a celebrated playing career.
If there is any rugby strategist who is content to work in the background and let others take credit for his work it is Erasmus, and that is one of the reasons why an alliance between the current Springbok coach and Erasmus might not be the disaster some are predicting it will be.
De Villiers, whose own level of planning for the new season appears to have been superior to previous seasons, appears delighted to have Erasmus on board. And skipper Smit spoke favourably of the appointment.
“From a technical point of view, Rassie’s attention to detail is sublime. With the kind of detail he brings, we can see how we can improve on ourselves,” said Smit.
“Four years ago he did the same thing and gave some great input but it only lasted for two weeks as he then signed for Western Province and couldn’t go on for the whole ride.”
With Erasmus joining the Bok think-tank, which over previous years has included senior players in addition to De Villiers and his assistant coaches Dick Muir and Gary Gold, the chances are good that the Boks will be able to find the balance to their approach that was missing on the last end of year tour, where they were criticized for being too conservative.
Although De Villiers paid lip-service to stand-in captain Victor Matfield’s support for the percentage game, the Bok coach is now sold on the Stormers style of play, which may be him paving the way for the role that Erasmus will probably play.
Of course, there are some thorny challenges ahead, not the least of those being the question of what level of input Erasmus would have on selection (the assistant coaches currently have little or none, with the senior players having far more influence on De Villiers), but the move to bring in Erasmus is a massive step forward in the World Cup challenge.