Rassie: eternal man of mystery

2012-01-11 13:37

Rob Houwing

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?

*Follow Sport24's chief writer Rob Houwing on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Rob is Sport24's chief writer

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.


  • Rugbyfan - 2012-01-11 16:23

    Sorry Rob, "infrequent engagement with media" has nothing to do with respect and admiration. It can only be measured by his track record and relationship with his players and fellow coaches. You sure did a good job of criticizing the guy from every angle, conveniently forgetting what an asset he was at the Cheetahs. The media and some members of the sports public sure are unforgiving. May you yourself never be judged by the measuring stick you use to judge others.

  • Christo - 2012-01-11 20:16

    Dankie Rob - interessante leesstof, so ook "Rugbyfan". Ek stem saam met Tank dat daar GROOT skroewe in die WP rugbytenk los is. Die naam van die skroewe is maar net eie belang - en meer spesifiek van die amateur administrateurs - ironies maar presies wat hulle is!! Ek is egter bekommerd oor 'n ander sakie. Hoe toevallig is dit dat al die spelers wat WP/Stormers verlaat het - dink maar Louw, Whitehead, Sadie en Engelbrecht wit is? Is die maar net nog 'n manier vir die amateur administrateurs om hulle stempel af te druk??

      ricky.klopper - 2012-01-13 17:51

      @najanivea no need to bring race into this brother. by all means, criticise individuals where it is due, but blaming things on a "demographic group" is not right.

  • Anton - 2012-01-11 20:39

    I am a huge Rassie fan. But I recall that as a player he had several run ins with Laury Mains at the, then, Cats. Rassie is a team player, but also an individualist. His rugby brain will serve him well, but I think some international experience (maybe in France) will serve him well

      Ian - 2012-01-12 07:19

      Laurie Mains was then ousted by his own players at the highlanders who found him too overbearing...I'm a Rassie fan, but also think this was an enjoyable and well written article. Ih he does go abroad, I hope it's with Biarritz and not the English national team.

      Jock - 2012-01-18 22:01

      Who didn't have a run in with Laurie Mains? A good coach but seemed a right twat.

  • Marnus - 2012-01-12 08:28

    Politics in sport does not work.

  • Marnus - 2012-01-12 08:29

    As long as there is politics in our sports all the good coaches will leave SA unfortunately!

  • Lucy - 2012-01-12 08:53

    Wow - This article was written full of vitriol. What's the matter mate, Rassie didn't wanna talk to you?

      Walter - 2012-01-12 15:20

      Jip - and it seems he thinks English newspapers are entitled to news first. Must we read anything in news based on which newspaper gets the story first?

  • Walter - 2012-01-12 15:26

    And to add to that: Who gave Rob the "Expert" to add to his column? Expert on what?

  • jacques.kies - 2012-01-12 15:39

    WP management has to go before any cups are to come our way!!!

  • Johan - 2012-01-12 18:44

    Wat ook al die rede hierbo - as jy nie 'n gebore papsak suier is nie, is jy NOOIT welkom in die kaap nie, kant- en-klaar!

  • Two.Oceans.Aviation - 2012-01-12 20:21

    Where ever Rassie has been in the last 8 years he has been successful, and what I mean by that is he has improved the game for his franchise, he is the very best RUGBY BRAIN in SA period. Yes I agree he seems to display some introvert type behavior but since when does that change the outcome of any game. Rassie as SA couch will be the start of a great new period for SA rugby.

  • John - 2012-01-13 09:15

    Rob me thinks you have an axe to grind. Boo hoo so you did not have access to Rassie as much as you would have liked. The head coach job is with Alister. It therefore makes sense that Alister is your go to man. As far as I can see he is open to the press. Your comment "happiest cantering around amidst his beloved Under-21s" is riduculous. Had you listened to what Rassie's blue print entailed you would know the plan was always to build depth through the junior ranks. Erasmus took this responsibilty on himsef and did a fantastic job. BTW Rassie does not pull the purse strings. You are insinuating in this article Flo, Anton & Jacques left as a result of Rassie not being able to meet their demands. The same applies to Sadie. If the F%*#cking board do not want to or don't have the money it has zip to do with Rassie. All he can do is beg and plead. Why not go and ask Sadie his opinion of Rassie. Stick to the facts and not your personal conspiracy theories. Take some lessons about journalism from Gavin Rich!

  • Wikus - 2012-01-13 13:29

    And lets not forget Rassie's failed attempt to raise an IPL style rugby tournament. Perhaps he's become too side-tracked or disenchanted...

  • Daniel - 2012-01-13 17:14

    Funny, 2007 I certain coaching figure at WP Rugby wanted me myself to join his setup...after going through the loop he phoned me up one day after much hope and had to inform me that WP Rugby says I'm to young and my skin color(white) does not fit the bill. Hows that for smashing a person's dream, coz I was to young and to white according to WP Rugby to be a rugby brain... WEIRD and SAD!

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