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.