Is Rassie the trailblazing technical guru so many make him out to be, including players and peers? Or, is he the self-centered, obnoxious chameleon?
Rassie first made his name as a coach in rugby by constructing one of the biggest upsets in modern Currie Cup history. His team at the time, the Cheetahs, would beat the much fancied Blue Bulls at Loftus in the final, in October of 2005. They went on to share the title with the same Blue Bulls side in 2006, before winning it again outright in 2007, against the Lions. It was a special moment in Cheetahs rugby history, as they had to wait 29 years to drink from the famous Cup they last won in 1976.
Such was Erasmus’ impact at the Cheetahs that Jake White, the Springbok coach at the time, called upon Rassie’s expertise to assist him in the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France. It was a job Erasmus initially accepted before turning it down at a later stage citing his new appointment as the head coach of Western Province and Stormers rugby as the reason.
Rassie’s arrival at the Cape franchise was met with huge expectation given his success at the resource-limited Cheetahs team. Now he had near unlimited resources in a union hungry for success. The Cape franchise was desperate, last winning any cup of significance in 2001, followed by humiliating losses in Super Rugby to their arch-rivals, the Bulls. As far as they were concerned, the Messiah has arrived.
Unfortunately, for Rassie and the union, the task would prove far greater than he’d expect.
It is perhaps true that the levels of Erasmus-expectation were unfair and created unnecessary pressure. Most believed the union would enjoy instant success given his achievements in his short coaching history. It would also be this pressure that would, in time, force him to take more of a directorship role away from the constant media pressures and spotlight, working in the background, and finally, leading to his resignation from the union in 2012.
Having visited Newlands quite often in the Erasmus tenure, I was constantly surprised at his obvious distrust of the media (who were out to get him according to Rassie), which later reached outrageous levels. He would not attend a post-match press conference without his legal advisor! This was followed with media black outs of certain WP and Stormers events and even accusations of Erasmus installing listening devices in visiting teams’ dressing rooms, which resulted in the previous team he coached, the Cheetahs, once staying out on the field at half time, during a match.
The longer the positive results stayed away, the more his paranoia grew.
However, there would be change.
Not long after his stint as an assistant Springbok coach, Allister Coetzee, joined the ranks of Western Province. Initially it was unclear just who was responsible for what at the union, but as soon as the official announcement came through that Rassie would adopt a role as ‘Manager of Coaches’, with Allister becoming the head coach to the Stormers and WP senior rugby teams, things started changing at the union.
A huge focus was placed on the youth structures within WP and Stormers rugby, not only to bring talented youngsters through the system, but also have the union adopt a single style of play throughout all levels. It was a project that would not bear any real fruit until 2010 where there was a marked increase in the level of performances from the senior teams, as well as the talent retention and promotion of younger players, contributing to what is now an enviable depth at the union.
For once, Erasmus, seemed happy and content with his role in the union where he would often be seen next to the field at WP U/19 and U/21 games, whereas Coetzee took care of the media and senior players.
Unfortunately, Erasmus would not have his fairytale ending at the Stormers when he was ‘forced’ to resign in the beginning of 2012, without having won a major trophy. His main gripes at the time were the union administration and politics associated with the job – funnily enough, the same reason highlighted by previous coaches at the union, including Nick Mallet and Gert Smal.
Before his resignation from the Stormers, Erasmus was involved with the Springboks in their World Cup campaign of 2011. Again much was made of his amazing technical and analytical ability, by both the Springboks coaching staff, as well as some senior players.
It almost seemed destined then when he quit his job at the Stormers, Erasmus would join whichever management team would take the Springboks forward from 2012. The fact that Erasmus would be involved in some capacity at national level was known even before Heyneke Meyer was announced as coach!
Now occupying a more permanent role with the Springboks and largely seen as Meyer’s right hand man and technical guru, much is expected from the man and the possible influence he will have.
Having once been told that Erasmus was quite similar to John Nash, the famous American asocial mathematician, who had a brilliant mind, but struggled to explain his thoughts and ideas logically to the rest of the world, I had a better understanding of where to ‘place’ Erasmus in my own thoughts.
Erasmus had been known to spend hours analysing the game, his own play, and the trends as a player. It has been said that Erasmus would often find himself isolated from his team mates disengaging himself from what would be seen as ‘normal’ behavior by a player at the time. This degree of asocial behavior is what would distinguish Erasmus from everyone else, but could also explain why he is often frustrated or has difficulty in explaining his actions and thinking logically to the media and public.
Having dabbled in coaching myself at much lower levels, I can also appreciate how difficult and frustrating it is sometimes, to implement game tactics, plans and trends. I can’t very easily plot and explain on a whiteboard to players in practice – let alone the guy on the street!
I believe it is too early to judge Erasmus in his current capacity with the Springboks as he, like Heyneke, will surely leave their mark, given more time to settle.
But if you had to ask me to explain the man who is Rassie Erasmus through my personal experience and observations, I would have to say that similar to Nash, he has a beautiful mind; a mind that can only be tapped into, or get a positive return from, if you create the right, or more importantly, a comfortable, environment for him.
The man may be eccentric and even viewed as a nutcase by some, but from where I sit he has the ability to force major changes in trends through innovation in the game of rugby, if given the opportunity – something desperately needed in a stale, predictable South African game.