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Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus has changed South African rugby in weird and wonderful ways – The Irish Times

Strange and wonderful. Wonderfully unusual.

How else could you describe the ‘Rassie phenomenon’ that has radically changed Springbok rugby?

The Boks coach, who is plotting Ireland's downfall in the two-Test series that begins at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, has delivered more than his fair share of fireworks on the world stage over the past six years – and that's no surprise, since Johan “Rassie” Erasmus was born on Guy Fawkes Day 51 years ago.

Erasmus has changed South African football in many ways. Not only has he led the Boks to back-to-back Rugby World Cup titles in his roles as coach (2019) and director of rugby (2023), but he has also done more than anyone else to fundamentally change the face of the game in the former “apartheid republic”.

The North-West University in Potchefstroom took notice and awarded Erasmus an honorary doctorate earlier this year.

“His commitment to inclusivity and change in sport not only reinvigorated the sport of rugby, but also served as a powerful symbol of reconciliation and unity in a nation with a complex history. Under his leadership, the Springboks not only achieved rugby greatness, but also became a unifying force, bringing people of all backgrounds and faiths together,” the university noted in presenting the award to Erasmus.

Therefore, today one can rightly address him as “Dr. Erasmus”.

Another doctor and famous rugby star of the past, Dr Danie Craven, also known as “Mr Rugby”, was known for his occasionally unusual and controversial statements and once famously proclaimed: “We can change South Africa on the rugby field.”

And that is exactly what Erasmus wants to achieve.

Because his motto is: “If you want to achieve something you have never achieved before, you have to do something you have never done before.”

I would even go so far as to say that since the death of Danie ‘Doc’ Craven, South Africa has not produced a personality in rugby as influential or charismatic as Erasmus.

Like Erasmus, Craven was a Bok hero on the field before turning his energies to coaching, leading South Africa to victory over the All Blacks in 1949 and their historic Grand Slam tour of Great Britain and Ireland in 1951 before serving as President of SA Rugby for almost 40 years.

He was inducted into the Rugby World Federation's Hall of Fame in 2007. His daughter Joan Roux said of Craven: “My father was an amazing man. He had integrity. He knew the game. He was innovative. He was a storyteller. He was a coach. He was often impatient with journalists and referees. But he could inspire. Above all, he loved the game of rugby. He said it brought people together. It brought our nation together and it still brings it together. We need the game of rugby. It gives us hope for the future.”

The above wording can be used verbatim as a quote from Erasmus for the day of his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Thanks to his extensive knowledge of the game and his undisputed tactical acumen, Erasmus has become known throughout the rugby world for his innovations that often seem to defy all reason.

From deploying his infamous Bomb Squad to inflict crucial second-half damage to the flamboyant use of “traffic lights” to convey messages to his charges on the field, Erasmus was never afraid to boldly go where no coach had gone before.

This slightly casual approach suits Rassie, the narrator. Just last week, Erasmus once again made the international media crowd in Pretoria laugh at press conferences when he commented on even the most mundane aspects of his team's preparations and selections with his quirky perspective.

The special thing about Erasmus is that he simply speaks his mind, and that inevitably leads to a fascinating narrative. Of course, his love/hate relationship with the media and the official world is also well known.

Much like his innovativeness, Erasmus is also fearless in his pursuit of justice and, in true Donald Trump fashion, has no qualms about venting his frustrations on social media. This has gotten him into trouble, such as the two-month ban he received from World Rugby for posting a video exposing Australian referee Nic Berry's handling of the first Test between the Boks and the British & Irish Lions in 2021.

To return to the Craven comparison, the great Hennie Muller, South Africa's captain on the victorious 1951 Grand Slam tour, was quoted by World Rugby as saying that Craven's greatest advantage as a successful coach was the fact that he understood his players so well – “their weaknesses, their fears, their hopes, their innermost thoughts. He can put himself in the players' shoes.”

This is probably the most prominent parallel between Danie Craven and Rassie Erasmus.

In his autobiography with the simple title “Rassie”, Erasmus unintentionally but profoundly reflects Müller’s views mentioned above.

“If you don't talk to the players regularly, there is no communication and they don't have a chance to talk about the things that concern them. They start imagining things and soon the devil is in their head…”

Another famous quote from Craven is: “A rugby match is a work of art.”

My New Zealand mate, All Blacks legend and mastermind behind the International Rugby Academy of New Zealand (IRANZ), Murray Mexted, takes this philosophy a step further and says that “coaching is an art form”.

If that is the case, then Erasmus must be called the Pablo Picasso of coaching.

With his distinctive style and eye for “artistic” and innovative coaching, Erasmus has always stayed true to his roots, as one of his predecessors as Bok coach, Heyneke Meyer, notes in his book My Notes on Leadership and Life. “What helped the Springboks win the 2019 World Cup was not just meticulous preparation and long training camps, but a focus on those aspects of our game that make South Africans so uniquely insatiable – strength and work ethic. Or, as Rassie told his players, 'Let the most important thing be the most important thing.'”

Physicality has always been a hallmark of Springbok rugby and that trademark, be it at the scrum or the ruck, paved the way like seldom before for South Africa's consecutive brilliant performances on the World Cup stage.

But Rassie Erasmus paints a much bigger picture.

Rassie unites the nation. South Africa needs Rassie. Rassie gives hope for the future.