Behind the scenes

GAVIN RICH, writing in SA Rugby magazine says that while Rassie Erasmus did good work with the WP juniors this year, the senior side could have used his help too.

When Western Province were preparing to run on to the Kings Park field to play their Currie Cup final against the Sharks, Rassie Erasmus was up in the press box enquiring whether there was a comfortable suite from where he could watch the game.

Erasmus had been busy with the WP U21 team, who completed a notable clean sweep against the Blue Bulls by winning their third game of the season against those opponents in their final.

He was also closely involved with the WP U19 side, a special young team if ever there was one, through the work he puts in at the WP Rugby Institute in Stellenbosch, which makes up virtually the entire U19 team player complement.

But until the knockout phases of the Currie Cup arrived, those in the know had the understanding that Erasmus, though not as prominent at WP senior practices as he had been during the Super 14 season, still had a role to play in helping out with match-day tactics over the radio.

Erasmus clearly wasn’t playing that role in the final, and it was learnt that he hadn’t in the semi-final either. So when WP found themselves all at sea against the brutally efficient Sharks in the main event on finals day, it was natural to wonder why the best tactical rugby brain in the country, if not the world, was not being utilised for his main strength.

Erasmus has won two Currie Cup titles with the Free State Cheetahs, and there wasn’t anyone else in the WP management who boasted Currie Cup-winning experience (Robbie Fleck as a player, but not as a coach).

When the question was asked, though, in a throwaway line in the Weekend Argus match report, all hell broke loose. A Cape Town Afrikaans tabloid tried to pick up on the story, and it set in motion a quite startling behind-the-scenes witch-hunt for the person who had ‘leaked’ the story.

Not that there needed to be a leak – Erasmus was sitting in the press box before the Currie Cup final for goodness sake, so give the journos some credit for being able to sometimes suss things out for themselves. And when WP were playing such dumb rugby in the second half of the final, you didn’t require a degree in rugby rocket science to be able to figure out that maybe Erasmus’s brain was needed.

Erasmus acknowledged as much afterwards, and the good news for Stormers fans is that he will again be playing a more prominent role in next year’s Super Rugby tournament. That is not to say head coach Allister Coetzee lacks anything in ability, for he is a fine coach in his own right, but Erasmus is the genius responsible for the way the Stormers/WP have emerged as real challengers to the Bulls’ longstanding South African rugby hegemony.

If you look back at the respective seasons of the Stormers and WP and go through them with a fine-tooth comb, it’s easy to arrive at the assumption that while the Province coaches, who were empowered by Erasmus, have grown immeasurably, there was something the Stormers had that WP lacked.

And it went beyond the missing Springboks, or the physical edge that seemed to be less pronounced in the WP defensive game than it was in the Stormers’ in the Super 14. Simply put, the Stormers just appeared cleverer.

You should expect that if you consider that the Stormers had the benefit of a core of experienced Boks, which WP didn’t, but it appeared to go deeper than that.

More than anything else, what the fuss over the radio story – it did get embellished a bit after that, with Die Son going as far as to suggest there had been a change room ban on Erasmus – did was bring into focus a subject that had been simmering in the background throughout the 2010 season. Would Erasmus become jealous of Coetzee’s success? Would Coetzee react badly if not given full credit for being his own man and would he become irritated with having Erasmus above him in the pecking order?

The first question can almost certainly be answered in the negative. When Erasmus   was approached for interviews or engaged in conversation during the season, he was always very quick to deflect the question. He says what he gets a kick out of is not the acclaim that goes with being a successful coach, but rather the intellectual energy that goes into the business of strategising.

You can almost hear people saying, ‘Ja, what a load of rubbish’ when they read that, but in Erasmus’s case it does appear to be true. One of those close to him has offered an acceptable explanation for Erasmus’s apparent lack of ego – he achieved a high level of success as a player, and as such, he may not require the recognition and public adulation that other lesser achievers might.

With Coetzee there was no public flashpoint before what became known as ‘the radio story’ hit the media to suggest he was uncomfortable with Erasmus’s role, but there were simmering rumours in the past two months of the season.

Some would say it’s human nature, but for those who don’t want to believe there might have been some tension, the passionate way Coetzee tried to deny he needed Erasmus’s brain should not have sat completely comfortably.

What is important to stress, at this point, is that there has never been any secret about the differing roles that the two personalities play within the Stormers/WP set-up. When Erasmus announced he was stepping aside from the head coaching role to enable Coetzee to take the reins, he was quite clear that issues relating to strategy were still his call. He said so at a press conference and a couple of times subsequently in interviews.

Erasmus, in looking back at the Super 14 earlier in the year, made the point that he didn’t believe the Stormers would have done as well in the competition had he remained as coach. He admitted to his weaknesses, particularly his discomfort when it came to dealing with the media and the flightiness that undermines his abilities as a man manager.

His main strength is strategy and the implementation of systems – and in this sense the results speak for themselves, with Province making every major final this year. The success of his much spoken-of succession planning programme shone through in the way the age-group teams dominated their competitions.

If there are tensions brewing between himself and the other coaches housed at the High Performance Centre in Bellville, Erasmus is either blissfully unaware of it, or he is determined to keep the peace for the sake of the equilibrium needed for Province to continue their current upward performance trajectory.

For him, the main thing is for ‘Allister and myself to continue to get into each other’s heads so that we reach a point where I don’t have to interfere at all. When that happens I will feel my job is done.’

Erasmus admits there were times in the last weeks of the Currie Cup when he felt the WP senior management was making mistakes and he had been tempted to interfere.

‘There have been mistakes, from them and from me. In the last four weeks of the Currie Cup there were times when things went against my sixth sense. I could have changed a few things, but I decided against it. Maybe that was a mistake on my part.

‘But when the Super 14 season came to an end and I started to look ahead to what needed to be done to get WP rugby working in the direction I wanted it to go, I had to make a choice. [Former Vodacom Cup and WP U21 coach] Jerome Paarwater was redeployed to look after club rugby, and it was clear the U21s needed some guidance.

‘I resolved that I would get involved with them, that it would benefit me to work closely with the players who are in line to be the next wave of WP and Stormers players. It made sense to get to know them, and to let them get to know me.

‘I had to make a choice. I couldn’t be half in and half out. That wouldn’t have benefited anyone. So while I did continue to advise the senior team coaches in the Currie Cup, I couldn’t be as involved as I’d been in the Super 14.’

Erasmus is adamant that he made the right decision, and he points to the recruitments made for next year as vindication.

‘We have only made one signing from outside the province for next year, and that is CJ van der Linde. I have got to know the young talent coming through, I have worked with all of them, and I can confidently say that we don’t need to recruit so much from outside. There is enough talent here; players like Danie Poolman, Nick Koster and JJ Engelbrecht all have big careers ahead of them and are ready to take the step up.

‘Losing the Super 14 and Currie Cup finals was a setback for morale. I would be lying if I denied that. But we have now started to make semi-finals and finals, and that has shown everyone the benefits of the system we have in place, whereby I meet with all the coaches on a Sunday night and we plan the week together.

‘Everybody [all the management] is involved in that, everyone has input and a say in how things will be done. It’s my job to satisfy the commercial side of things while also having the best players within a certain budget who can win trophies for us. On the commercial side it was a big setback not to get home finals these two seasons as we lost out on R24 million. We could do with that money.

‘We have the players, we have the coaches, maybe what we don’t have at the moment – and this came up in our wash-up session at the end of the season – is a squad with the staying power to last 17 or 18 weeks. We lost crucial league games in the Super 14 and Currie Cup that cost us home advantage in the finals.

‘I’m satisfied, though, that we have now developed the depth, with the young players coming through, that will ensure that we don’t need to keep overplaying guys like Duane Vermeulen and Brok Harris. That will help us ensure that we can continue winning through rounds nine, 10, 11 and 12 and then be ready to step up again in a final.’

– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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