GAVIN RICH explains why Rassie Erasmus will give the Springboks a technical edge.
When Rassie Erasmus was appointed by Jake White to work as his technical adviser in 2007, SA Rugby magazine ran a coverline that asked the question: ‘Is this the man to win us the World Cup?’
Erasmus never stayed long enough for him to be part of the public adulation that followed the win in Paris more than three and a half years ago. Not long after taking up his position on White’s management team, Erasmus was appointed as what was essentially the Western Province director of rugby, Eddie Jones came in as his replacement, and the rest is all well-known history.
What isn’t widely known, though, is the contribution Erasmus made behind the scenes while he was involved with the Boks, a period which encompassed that year’s Tri-Nations. Springbok players at the time attested to the technical edge that Erasmus brought to the management that had been lacking in the past.
Jones did make a massive impact when he joined the squad. He had coached Australia to the previous World Cup final and boasted an impressive list of achievements on his rugby CV. So his presence had the effect of reinforcing the Boks’ confidence in what they were doing.
But as Jones only joined the Boks late in the day when surely most of the preparation for the World Cup had already been done, it is easy to go along with those players who say that Erasmus played a much bigger role in laying the platform than he was given credit for.
Roll the video forward and the same question is now being asked: Is this the man to win us the World Cup? Erasmus wouldn’t like being hyped in that way as he knows only too well that not all coaches have his one great strength. More than any top coach in this country and possibly in the world, he doesn’t get guided by ego.
Anyone who thinks that Allister Coetzee took over the Stormers coaching reins and turned the team around on his own while Erasmus slunk away to hide in a corner is just ignorant. Coetzee is an excellent coach in his own right and that has enabled Erasmus to become more hands-off at times, such as during last year’s Currie Cup when he made the age-group teams his focus.
But he said at the press conference where his shift of position to WP senior professional coach was announced that he would remain in charge of strategy – and that has been the case. During this Super Rugby season, and with both parties having learnt from the mistakes made when he wasn’t so hands-on during the Currie Cup play-offs, Erasmus has been back at the coal face in helping devise strategy at the Stormers, just as he was in the 2010 Super 14.
Those interviewed for the 2007 Erasmus article spoke of him as a rugby intellectual who thought about the game 24/7 and was continually analysing, theorising and coming up with innovative ideas. ‘Jake can leave all the technical stuff to Rassie and rest easily,’ said Naka Drotské.
Four years on, and with Erasmus having now been through the coaching school of hard knocks by making mistakes and then correcting them in the unforgiving and highly demanding Cape rugby environment, it is concerned Springbok rugby supporters who, if not resting easily, should certainly be resting a lot easier than they were.
Assuming the senior players will this year bring the self-discipline and the enforcement of discipline that was lacking during a mostly disastrous 2010 campaign, Erasmus will bring to the Boks precisely what was missing before – tactical and technical expertise, attention to detail, and thorough analysis of trends so that the Boks can react timeously to opposition innovation.
Assistant coach Gary Gold is from a similar technical school to Erasmus, but he has struggled at times to get his voice heard in a coaching group that is generally not into the minutiae of coaching.
The attention to technical detail that has never been head coach Peter de Villiers’s strong point is crucial, and last year showed that players who were coaching from inside the scrum didn’t have the wide overview that was necessary in order to tap the evolution of the game. So as Erasmus has confirmed he is fulfilling the same role as in 2007, his appointment can be considered a masterstroke which has doubled or even tripled the Boks’ chances of winning the World Cup.
Early indications are that a considerably more professional emphasis has been brought to the Bok planning this year, and Erasmus has already been a big part of that as he goes about reinforcing coaching principles and making checks that each unit is on track and focused in the right direction.
‘Not a lot differs in the role that I’m taking on now compared to what I did in 2007,’ says Erasmus. ‘In that Tri-Nations the top players didn’t go on the away leg and I worked with those guys for about a month in Cape Town while Jake was away. It will be similar this time, but that will be the only time you should see me on the field doing any kind of coaching.
‘My role is as a back-room guy, doing what I really enjoy doing, which is to analyse opposing players, analyse our own players and the contribution they are making, and go into the different aspects that make up rugby to do a proper analysis of what is working and what isn’t. I then present it all to the coaches so they can make decisions based on the facts.’
If all goes according to plan, and as everyone knows that is a big ‘if’ in South African rugby, Erasmus in his stand-in role (he returns to the Stormers after the World Cup) will help take the emotion out of selection and the planning of strategy.
‘The reason Peter wants me involved is because in my role with the Stormers I have spent so much time analysing not only our own players’ strengths and weaknesses but also those of the other South African teams that we play against.
‘I bring a different perspective in that I have coached some of the guys and also coached against many of them. I know what opposition coaches fear about them, I know what weaknesses opposition coaches look to prey on. And it’s the same with the overseas players.
‘The most important thing is to take emotion out of it. I want to present Peter with the hard facts, and I’m not just talking about statistics here. Statistics only take you so far. What I need to tell Peter and the forwards coach [Gold] is not that Andries Bekker makes this many cleanouts and another player that many, but what they do after the cleanout, how they react after contact … all those things.’
Those last few things mentioned by Erasmus are crucial as the Boks have decided that the World Cup will be decided as much by work rate, which is a cornerstone of the Stormers’ almost unbelievable defensive record, as it will by clever kicking and other technical aspects.
Erasmus being the workaholic he is, the Bok coach and his assistants are already being presented with detailed studies and statistics relating to the work rate and the contribution of every Bok playing in Super Rugby. The players will be given all that information at the next planning meeting, where those who are struggling will be told they need to shape up or ship out.
Either way, it will put more science into the selection of the Springbok squad, which Erasmus agrees cannot include any weak links if they are to have any chance of retaining the World Cup.
‘Look, the coaches have been in place for three to four years now, most of the players have been around that long, so it would be crazy to try and change too many things. The Boks struggled last year but they beat the British & Irish Lions and dominated the Tri-Nations the year before. So it’s not like we are a bad team or the coaches are bad. There have been bad times but there have also been good times.
‘I see it as my job to find a measurable way of helping the guys decide what has worked for them and what has not and then, from what has been tried before, settle on a plan based on what has been shown to work.
‘I want to help the guys in charge of their specific units – Gary with the defence and the forwards, Dick [Muir] with the backs and Percy [Montgomery] with the kicking game – to identify all the aspects that need to be improved on. I want to help them with analysis.’
How much of what Erasmus offers and how much of it gets left on the cutting table will only be known through the passage of time. But one positive spin-off of Erasmus’s involvement and the new approach he has brought with him has been better planning in terms of how the time available should be divided up.
It is no secret that there were times in recent years where the Boks, under the player-driven system, treated some aspects of their game, such as defence, as an after-thought when planning the week – perhaps because before last year’s rude awakening it was considered their strength. With Erasmus pinpointing the areas that need attention, that mistake shouldn’t be repeated.
The question of the influence Erasmus will have on selection was one of the big provisos that tempered enthusiasm over what difference he could make. He isn’t going to be a selector, but if De Villiers wants Erasmus’s contribution to be meaningful, his selections will be directed by the ‘facts’ that come out of Erasmus’s analysis.
‘I’m not a selector, we have guys who do that job in Mac [Ian McIntosh], Peter Jooste and the coach,’ says Erasmus. ‘But by allowing me to give them the facts, the hard stuff to work on, we will take emotion away from it and enable them to choose the best guys.’
Again, Erasmus takes care to stress that the facts he refers to are not just statistics, but the analysis that is done behind the stats.
‘The stats will tell you a guy has had nine runs and ran 40m, but they won’t tell you how he went into the contact, what he did with the ball afterwards and what decisions he made.’
Erasmus is convinced that there is no need for a massive overhaul.
‘All that’s needed is for someone to help anticipate what differences changes to law interpretations might make to the way the game is played and to then help decide which is the best strategy to employ in those circumstances. I offer a view on the options that can be available which can then be debated.’
– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.