During a match with Ireland: Rassie always attracts attention (REUTERS/Lorraine O’sullivan)
Just hours had passed after his team, the Springboks, had become two-time rugby world champions, when Rassie Erasmus put Agustín Pichot’s face as his profile photo on his social networks. A disconcerting move for some except for those who best know the eccentric brain behind the South African team. An innovator in his own right, a different, special type, who is also not exempt from controversies and criticism. Both in his time as a player and coach and now, especially in his role as Director of Rugby. A man – 51 years old – pragmatic, spicy, who always goes further, who sometimes looks one step ahead of the rest, looking for disruptive methods to succeed in high performance. A mix of Carlos Bilardo with Marcelo Gallardo and Carlos Bianchi, so that the most Argentine soccer fans can get an idea of who we are talking about…
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Erasmus took over as coach on March 1, 2018, when the Springboks were in crisis. Five years later they have once again been champions of a sport that always had them as candidates, but they have never dominated like now. In fact, in these four years they won as many World Cups (2) as in the rest of history, with the added bonus of having recovered the DNA of the South African game. And, of course, nothing is a coincidence at this level. And Rassie, the father of the child who now, they say, will once again occupy the role of coach, without leaving that of director, has a lot to do with it. It is clear that he is the boss of South African rugby.
We are talking about a true “chess player” who, hours after his new conquest, made another surprising move, such as putting Pichot’s photo on his networks. Something that several understood as support for their new candidate to lead World Rugby, the highest global sports organization. “On the one hand it is an honor that a world champion remembers me. And even more so just a few hours after the title,” Pichot began in a chat with Scrum, the ESPN program, and then delved into the reason that not everyone understood. “I will try to explain it in the most humble way for me… Erasmus has always wanted me to be making decisions on a global level. He respects me a lot. After the title, he wrote me a message, he told me about my honesty, my values… I take it as a nice gesture, a nice pampering. Sometimes the management part is very ungrateful, you have to go out and explain things, to respond to criticism that is not constructive, and when situations like this happen, you feel comforted, you think that you are really doing something well,” concluded Agustín, another who was a forward on and off the rugby field.
In 2019, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Siya Kolisi showing the trophy to fans REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo
As a player, Erasmus won a bronze medal at the 1999 World Cup in Wales – he retired in 2003 – during a time in which he was already emerging as an innovator, using a military video analysis system to study his rivals. Also, in his early days as a coach, he was a pioneer in monitoring physical loads with cardiac monitoring, which today is common in all sports.
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A guy who was always thinking about all the details, seeing how he could do everything so that the teams understood him better. And they gave the maximum. Erasmus used to climb to the roofs of the Free Stade Stadium in Bloemfontein to raise colorful signs that allowed him to give directions to the Cheetahs, something he could not do with words – or shouts – due to the typical bustle of a packed stadium. He also used colored cones and in this World Cup in France he used different lights to follow the orders. A kind of traffic light that they raised from the coaches’ box and that once again divided public opinion in a conservative sport.
Erasmus is almost desperate to take advantage in any way possible, which does not go down well in a conservative environment like rugby. A couple of years ago he found a loophole in the regulations to enter the field and give instructions. As? He occupied the role of water bearer. The hydration of the players was fictitious, in reality he took advantage of each entry into the field to give orders. World Rugby quickly banned him and gave him a ten-month ban.
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He was also fined in 2021 for strong criticism of the Australian referee Nic Berry, after the confrontation between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions that year, after a 62-minute video was released that was leaked on social networks. During the suspension, he ironically used that same channel to show himself dancing and celebrating his team’s triumphs. It only took him 15 months to have the same problem again, since after the losses against Ireland and France, in November 2022, he insisted on the refereeing inconsistencies and suffered a new sanction, this time for two months. His position against the highest rugby institution and the changes he seeks are clear, surely with Pichot as the leader of the change.
Even Erasmus has gone further when he proposed three regulatory changes to improve the game, precisely at a time when the sport’s regulations are in the crosshairs. First, he asked for a group of scrum experts, former players and coaches to act as specialist referees, always believing that both the scrum and the maul are two plays that are as beautiful as they are decisive in the game. Second, he requested to respect the times per action, demanding to limit the time of the line, the scrum or the kick, through a countdown on giant screens. “If time runs out, they lose possession. We could thus easily increase the net playing time, between 7 and 10 minutes, simply by enforcing the rules already written,” he clarified. Finally, he spoke about the need to add a second referee. “The idea sounds radical, but it can work if done correctly. “If it is efficient and non-intrusive, it could make a big difference in defense and breakdown, situations where a judge needs five eyes to really see what is going on,” he said.
Rassie Erasmus hanlando with Steven Kitshoff, Handre Pollard and Siya Kolisi (REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)
Rassie, politically incorrect, has always played the other game, the political one, that of putting pressure on rivals, referees and managers. For example, on X (former Twitter) he never followed accounts, except on special occasions when he wants to make something visible. As was the preview of the Ireland-Scotland match, in which the press rumored the possibility of a result arrangement between the two to leave South Africa out. It was when the Director of Rugby began to follow the accounts of those two teams. He also did it with England in the run-up to the semi-final match, as an indication of being attentive to what the British did.
Every action of his seems to be thought out and premeditated, including the outbursts or criticisms he has had against referees, managers or rivals. “I understand that sometimes I can come across as mouthy, stubborn, arrogant and impertinent,” he admitted in his book. But it was like that for the outside as well as the inside. In 2018, for example, as coach of the national team, he appointed Siya Kolisi as captain, the first player of black ethnicity in the 127-year history of the Springboks. It was he who lifted the cup in 2019. No less than in a country that had apartheid and, at the same time, his team was the symbol of national unity, after winning that remembered 1995 World Cup, Nelson Mandela’s dream. It is clear that, in addition to everything, Erasmus never prevented him from making heavy decisions…
But, beyond controversies, he was always at the forefront with some innovative ideas. One of them was the creation of the Outfox software, which allowed the team to learn – and then virtually practice – the plays that would be transferred to the playing field without being physically trained, avoiding the possibility of being studied by rivals. Some believe that this was the key weapon to beat England in the 2019 final. Precisely in this tournament, in which he was coach, he began to implement the Bomb Squad formation, putting seven forwards and one back – instead of the usual 5 and 3-, taking risks and seeking to unbalance from the physical power of the power forwards.
Rassie Erasmus celebrating with the world cup (REUTERS/Matthew Childs/File Photo)
Also, for example, a player was taken to the coaches’ box on time, the experienced Duane Vermeulen, something that had never been seen at this level. And, in the past, he even sought to add a former international referee, like Nigel Owens, “to improve the relationship between the players and the judges,” as he admitted, although his detractors say that, in reality, he wanted one more weapon to take small advantages. Owens refused Rassie’s proposal.
It is clear that behind the South African reign there is a special person, a disruptive and innovative brain, who is in every detail, even at the risk of looking like the bad guy. Erasmus doesn’t care. He knows how to play this game well. He is one of those transgressors who does not think about what people will say, he only builds power and progress for his team.