Can Rassie beat Twitter?

Gavin Rich

The moment has arrived where what could be a six-year Rassie Erasmus era as Springbok coach begins and it is time to pose that question asked in a contemporary insurance advert – what could go wrong?

Well, quite a lot actually. That is not to cast aspersions on Erasmus’ ability. Indeed, it seems forever ago that I first started punting him as the solution to South Africa’s rugby ailments. There isn’t a more astute rugby brain working on these shores and it says something for how long he has been rated as one of the local heavyweights that Jake White had him as his initial choice for the technical advisory role for the 2007 World Cup.

But this is South African rugby we are talking about, and not for nothing is the Bok coaching job known as the poisoned chalice. If Erasmus falls foul to outside factors beyond his control, succumbs to the pressure, picks up that mysterious malady when at the coal-face known as Mad Coaches Disease, then he wouldn’t be the first good coach to do so.

When Steve Smith broke down after the ball tampering fiasco a few months ago, it was said that the Australian cricket captain holds the same status and faces similar pressures to what the prime minister of that country does. It is the same in South Africa with the Springbok coach. Only the Bok coach has to be far more political, far more wary of the myriad potential minefields that can blow him out of the water.

What Smith presided over to attract him such vilification was spectacularly stupid. You don’t have to be that stupid to be vilified as the Bok coach. You just have to say something in slightly the wrong way, or be misinterpreted, and the social media forums will catch fire.

Social media is one of the reasons that being Bok coach might be even more perilous an undertaking now than it was when John Williams became the first post-isolation Bok coach in 1992. Heyneke Meyer told me about how, when the Boks struggled under his watch, his children had to deal with the social media fall-out on the school forums. It’s no longer the easily identifiable mainstream media platforms from which the criticism comes. It gets piled on from everywhere, and it often picks up a momentum that is completely out of kilter with the perceived crime.

Erasmus may have received a reminder that not everything relating to the public mood towards rugby is in his control when a few weeks ago Ashwin Willemse walked out of the Supersport studio. That gave rise to a mood, driven by social media, where it seemed there was a powder keg about to go off, and it had to have impacted on a Bok coach who must know that he has been given a lot more by his bosses than his predecessor was. And that if the Boks lose there will be many who will suffer from selective amnesia, blocking out the memory of just how bad parts of the Allister Coetzee era were, in their eagerness to remind him of how his bosses have bent over backwards to give him unprecedented powers.

The mood has been turned around this week by the appointment of Siya Kolisi as the first black Bok captain. To be honest I hesitate to call him that, for having written his book, I know how Peter de Villiers hated being referred to as the first black Bok coach. His objections were both obvious and understandable. It was why when fellow writers listed his skin colour as one of their primary reasons for backing Kolisi for the captaincy, my stomach churned. Kolisi doesn’t deserve that.

He ticks too many boxes for there to be any whiff of his elevation to the captaincy being a political appointment, not the least of them being that he is now an experienced international player, is highly regarded, respected and liked by his peers, and he is also the only regular franchise captain (Franco Mostert and Handre Pollard have done the job only in a care-taker capacity at their respective unions) in the squad.

If you look at the loose-forwards, he is also a definite starter, for while Kwagga Smith, who plays against Wales on Saturday, better fits the mould of an openside flank, he looks more like an impact sub than a starting option for the big test matches.

My one misgiving about the Kolisi captaincy though is that I wish it had happened last year, when he was in better form. Form is not a box he ticks as unequivocally now as he would have 12 months ago, and just recently his body language both on and off the field has suggested a level of stress.

Hopefully being back with the Boks will reinvigorate him, but there is a potential challenge for both the player and Erasmus to negotiate if he does not regain his best form or if the critics who say the likely Bok back-row lacks balance are found to be justified.

Erasmus says he learned a lot about the media, and how to deal with the media, in Ireland, but this is South Africa. How he deals with the intensity of the focus and the demands and pressure from so many different interest groups all calling for selections and decisions that might seem diametrically opposite from each other will be as pivotal to his survival as how his team performs.

We haven’t even arrived at one of the biggest potential perils faced by all Bok coaches, that being the organisation that appoints and employs them. That is a whole different column on its own, suffice it to say now though that while everyone appears to be on the same page, and there is a good understanding between Erasmus and the administrators, history reflects that the mood and the relationship can change quickly when the pressure is on. Erasmus might even be working for different bosses in a few years.

Six years is a sod of a long time in rugby and it is an exceptionally long time to be on a roller-coaster ride. Erasmus better have a strong stomach.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • Pierre

    Kolisi at the moment deserve to be captain, although as you said, his form isn’t very good. Think a guy like Roelof Smit will push hard for that number 6 jersey when he is over his injury. He is much more of n specialist 6 and is big as well. But Kolisi when on form is a quality player. My concern is, what will the public reaction be when Whiteley is appointed captain once he is fit and ready to play. I think he would have been captain if not injured, but now with the media reaction after Kolisi has been handed the captain’s armband…it will be n tough spot for Rassie

  • André van der Westhuizen

    There is no second guess to where Kolisi’s loyalty lies. With the green and gold… He is also a nice bloke with a very high work rate. He also doesn’t seem to phased with all the politics going on. He’s form could be better. But on the day I doubt if he will let his team down. But the real question is if he is the leader along with Erasmus, to steer the Springbok-ship back to winning waters… That we will have to wait and see…

  • Stephen

    An inspiring player should be appointed captain, not appoint someone captain in order to inspire him. Kolisi admits his former is bad. Rassie knows him,so it is up to us as public to support his decision until proven otherwise.

  • Sharky

    Isn’t it sad how the government’s affirmative action and transformation agendas have caused the white rugby community to view the appointment to an elevated post of any black player or administrator with suspicion? The shadow of “quota player” and “affirmative appointment” hangs over every black player meaning that he has to prove himself every time he goes out onto the field. A white player who is in poor form is just a bad selection, but a black player in the same situation is a quota selection. Sad.

    Imagine how more harmonious the rugby community would be without political interference. After all, the vast, vast, VAST majority of fans, coaches, administrators and franchise owners want a winning team more than they want a team consisting of a particular race. For the fans winning is fun to watch. Winning makes you proud. Winning on Saturday makes your weekend. And for the people in the business of rugby a winning team means more bums on seats, more sponsors, more TV revenue and more money in general. It also means the public getting off your back! So why in this day and age would anyone prevent good black players from playing at the highest level that their skills merit? So let’s publicly abolish these racist affirmative action and transformation policies so that fans know that any player who takes the field is there because the coach believe that he is the best person for the job and not racial window-dressing. Replace these failed policies with scouting programs that feed promising young black players into good rugby schools where they can benefit from good coaching and rugby ethos. You build a house from the foundation up. The government is looking to lay the roofing first.

    Regarding Kolisi’s appointment. I honestly believe that he is not the best player in his position at the moment. He certainly has the potential to be, but he is currently not on form. Period. Full stop. You can’t argue with that. However, one thing I do know is that sometimes the best captain for a particular team (given the personalities and gameplan involved) will not necessarily be the best player in his position. Think John Smit or Gary Teichmann. A good captain who can inspire his team to play beyond themselves is worth so much more that a slightly better flank. Also, a player who would be a fantastic captain in one team may not gel that well in another. So because I do not have a detailed insight into the personalities involved or exactly what Rassie is planning I am willing to give Kolisi the benefit of the doubt. I hope he becomes the best captain we have ever had and that he leads the Boks into another golden era.

    • Herman Schroder

      Sharkey, a very good article by the way especially with regard to the political shenanigans. The problem with Kolisi is that he is not in form and that’s even by his own admission in a recent interview. Maybe it’s due to the extra responsibility as captain of the Stormers that his game has deteriorated. Maybe he does not have the mental strength or rugby nous to help him to cope with the extra responsibility ?. His captaincy record is pretty poor but in his defence he’s hardly the only reason the Stormers are poor though, Fleckie after three years in charge still has no clue as coach.

      If what I suggested has some substance imo it’s rather unfair on Kolisi for Rassie and Co to pit him against the Hansen, Cheika and Jones’s of this world in the white hot cauldron of test rugby. It may make him or break him but I wish him well going forward. The dilemma may come when the Boks are not doing well and Whiteley returns, will they replace Kolisi with Whiteley ? In my opinion and Irrespective of the test results, it just won’t happen, it will be very difficult to turn back the clock now the Rubicon has been crossed. Cheers.

    • John Comyn

      Ironically the best captains have not been the best in their position. Both world cup winning sides had 2nd best captains. Neither Pienaar nor Smit were best in their respective positions.

    • Rant

      Very well put Sharky. Could not agree with you more. I think everyone just wants the Boks to start winning again. Be it by hook or by crook, just get some wins. But most notably, we want the Boks to beat the All Blacks and become the number 1 team, whether it be 23 black people, 23 white people or 23 martians. Lets just get a winning team again!

      • OldGitEd

        Or 23 South Africans.

    • Dean

      This is probably the best thing I’ve read today!

  • Sia Meleni

    The are players who’s form on The Super rugby level is good but yet they can’t convert that form to international rugby. Test rugby is so different. Kolisi has experience of test rugby and class. While many guys who could possible take his place as no6 are in form but have not the experience of test rugby yet.

  • Christo

    Most people have short memories. Francois Pienaar was definitely not one of the best flanker when he was appointed captain on 1995. But he was one of the best Springboks captains in our history. SK has the attributes of a great leader. Say no more.

    • Dr Hoffman

      really? actually there is lots to say. Hows his Stormers captaincy record??? Its dismal to say the least, just like his form.

  • Brom Ponie

    I’m still hesitant. Kolisi hasn’t shown great form this season and is far from having secured his spot.
    With Marcell Coetzee, Jaco kriel and Jean-Luc du Preez still around, I think it’s unwise to appoint Siya just yet. We don’t want another case of the captain being outshined by the reserves, as we’ve seen happen in 2016 with Adriaan Strauss.

  • Dr Hoffman

    ”He ticks too many boxes for there to be any whiff of his elevation to the captaincy being a political appointment”
    Rubbish! What boxes are those? Standing on the wing all day doing nothing boxes? Those? Then full marks to him.

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