South Africa's Rugby World Cup Final 2023 Mastermind - the 'Scientist of Rugby

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South Africa’s Rugby World Cup Final 2023 Mastermind – the ‘Scientist of Rugby

rugby england, rugby france, Rugby World Cup 2023

Rassie Erasmus, perched high in the Yokohama Stadium stands, discreetly uttered two critical words into his headset microphone. The clock had just ticked past the 55-minute mark in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, and the outcome was still hanging in the balance. An Owen Farrell penalty had just shaved South Africa’s lead down to a slender six points.

Amid the cacophony of this moment, the Springboks on the field heard their head coach’s instructions loud and clear. It was a meticulously crafted set piece play that would leave England bewildered.

Malcolm Marx’s throw at the line-out was flat and swift, landing in the hands of a grounded Eben Etzebeth, catching England off guard. Damian de Allende bulldozed forward from midfield, and when Faf de Klerk initiated a blindside switch, the entire forward pack aligned themselves at a leisurely pace, almost within arm’s reach of one another. They weren’t out to win the physical collision, the common dictate of modern rugby; instead, they initiated contact, bound together, and formed an instant eight-man maul.

It was an audacious assault on an unprepared England defense. Dan Cole was penalized for attempting to disrupt the South African forwards. Handre Pollard confidently slotted the ensuing penalty. In the coaching box, Erasmus wore a broad grin.

In many ways, this play epitomized Rassie Erasmus – innovative, spontaneous, and triumphant, with a hint of paranoia. In the days leading up to the final, Erasmus had been too anxious to practice the move on the training field. South Africa’s World Cup final base, overlooked by skyscrapers, fueled his concerns that the move might be observed, dissected, and nullified from a concealed vantage point.

Thus, prior to the final, the Springboks refrained from practicing it vigorously or in their playing cleats. Instead, they rehearsed their on-field movements via a large screen using an advanced software called Outfox, created by Erasmus himself. This innovative tool was designed to imprint game strategies into the players’ minds more effectively and expeditiously.

Once the high-tech whiteboard preparations were complete, they walked through the new move in a hotel conference room, sipping beer rather than isotonic drinks. The grand unveiling of this play – the first time it would be executed on an actual pitch – took place on the grandest stage of their lives.

Stories like these have an enduring impact, inspiring fans and creating chants. At the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, South Africa’s faithful supporters serenaded their now-director of rugby with their own rendition of the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” a song that had been Ireland’s unofficial anthem at the tournament. They chanted, “Rassie’s in your head.”

Erasmus, known for his unconventional tactics like using colored lights to communicate with the touchline, inserting himself as a water carrier to access his players during play, and publicly critiquing refereeing performances, remains a frequent headline maker.

In January, writer David O’Sullivan met Erasmus at a vineyard restaurant above Cape Town, tasked with ghostwriting Erasmus’ autobiography. O’Sullivan’s initial perceptions of Erasmus as a flamboyant extrovert didn’t align with the man he encountered.

“He was incredibly shy, avoided social gatherings, and often seemed awkward,” O’Sullivan remarked, dispelling the notion that Erasmus was a charismatic showman. Despite Erasmus’ visibility in the media, O’Sullivan points to his subtle mannerisms – the restless leg, fidgety hands, and a constant smile – as signs of his unease when speaking with unfamiliar faces. He contends that Erasmus often overcomes his discomfort to shield head coach Jacques Nienaber from excessive media scrutiny.

Jaco Taute, who first crossed paths with Erasmus in 2012 when he was a Springbok and Erasmus was SA Rugby’s high-performance manager, was also taken aback by Erasmus’s enigmatic nature. “This guy is on another level,” Taute remembered thinking.

Their journeys intersected once more in 2016, this time in the southern reaches of Ireland. Rassie Erasmus took on the role of director of rugby at Munster and, in a twist of fate, brought Jaco Taute on board on a short-term basis to cover an injury.

However, just a month later, tragedy struck Munster when head coach Anthony Foley passed away suddenly at the age of 42. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, Erasmus, who had recently arrived in Cork, found himself thrust into the position of head coach, entrusted with guiding a grieving team through the remainder of the season.

“It was an incredibly challenging time for everyone, but the way Rassie handled the situation united us,” Taute shared with BBC Sport.

“As a tribute to Axel, Anthony Foley’s nickname, he brought the team together to emphasize Axel’s significance to Munster and its rich history. He turned the rest of the season into a heartfelt tribute to Axel. It must have been an immense challenge for him, but the way he handled it was remarkable.

“Rassie may often come across as the methodical scientist of rugby, with his game plans and meticulous bench strategies, but he also excels in the realm of emotions.”

Erasmus’ blunt and straightforward communication, the same trait that often generates headlines, was employed in his Monday reviews of Munster’s performances.

“Rassie cuts to the core of the matter swiftly,” Taute remarked. “There’s no room for evasion, but he’s always fair – everything is rooted in reality and supported by evidence. It’s never personal.”

This principle is one that Erasmus has consistently instilled in his South African squad. He emphasizes that they are representing not only themselves but also a greater cause, and individual egos should not overshadow the team’s mission.

Erasmus’ relentless pursuit of an edge has taken him to unconventional places. As a player in the late ’90s, he was an early adopter of video analysis to scrutinize opponents, learning to code and categorize footage with the help of a friend involved in military technology. In his roles as a club and provincial coach in South Africa, he introduced heart rate monitors to track training efforts, prioritized integrating players’ partners and families into the team environment, and, nearly two decades before showcasing it at the World Cup, used colored lights in the coaching box to aid the Free State Cheetahs in winning the Currie Cup.

“It’s exhilarating to play under Rassie and Jacques because you never know what to expect next. They are constantly innovating, devising fresh, clever tactics to challenge the opposition,” Taute emphasized.

At times, even by his own admission, Erasmus goes to extremes. After the first Test of the British and Irish Lions tour in 2021, he recorded an hour-long video critique of referee Nic Berry’s performance. A World Rugby committee dismissed his claim that the video, posted without password protection, was meant to remain private, and stated that Erasmus failed to grasp the negative impact his behavior had on the game.

During his suspension from Springbok matchdays, South Africa’s fans were assured that Erasmus would continue to be a presence in the stands. He received a one-year ban from participating in South Africa’s matchdays and a two-month suspension from all rugby. While the suspension was painful, the damage to his reputation was even more significant.

“It deeply affected him,” as noted by O’Sullivan.

“He felt that he was well-respected and beloved after 2019, but things soured during the Lions tour. He was quite disheartened by how the international rugby community turned against him.”

Erasmus’ sister, a social worker residing in Reading for the past two decades, expressed to her brother that she felt like the only person in Britain who didn’t harbor animosity toward him.

Most of that animosity has since dissipated. Erasmus, aside from a few ill-advised skirmishes on social media, has largely steered clear of controversy in recent weeks. In South Africa, his reputation has been bolstered further by the national team’s impressive journey to a second consecutive World Cup final, featuring a truly representative squad.

Jaco Taute, now back in his homeland after six years, has been profoundly moved by the impact of the Springboks.

“The Springboks foster a deep connection among people. The way they bring people together and rally them is extraordinary,” he remarked.

“On Fridays, known as ‘Bok Friday,’ you see everyone sporting Springbok jerseys, and you can feel the excitement in the stores and on the streets.

“This group, especially captain Siya Kolisi and Rassie, have brought that spirit to life.

“I don’t believe Rassie is playing up to any persona. He is simply an exceptional, unique, and intelligent individual.”

As he prepares to face the All Blacks, Erasmus will undoubtedly use his intelligence to devise a few surprising tactics for Saturday’s game.

Reference:

https://www.businessghana.com/site/news/sports/295905/Rugby-World-Cup-final-2023:-Meet-South-Africa&

https://www.bbc.com/sport/rugby-union/67207277

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