No one can legitimately predict where South African rugby is going.
It’s always been the country’s most polarising sport, so there’s no justified surprise to be had in the latest divisive public clamour. Poor on-field results, an unceasing battle with transformation and a body seemingly uneager to embrace transparency have left many fans disillusioned with what the future holds.
National rugby’s worst-kept secret is a cliché that’s been bandied about in news articles with reckless abandon ever since Rassie Erasmus’s appointment as national director of rugby in November. Which doesn’t make it any less true.
Just ask Allister Coetzee. In January, Toetie’s now-infamous letter to South African Rugby Union (Saru) chief executive Jurie Roux was leaked by the Sunday Times. No doubt teetering on the precipice at the time, he accused the organisation of setting out to undermine him and sully his reputation from day one.
Coetzee endured a torrid record with the national side. Of the 25 matches for which he was at the helm, he managed a measly 11 wins and two draws to give him a 44% win record. He, however, laid the disaster firmly at the feet of the board.
According to him, the plan all along, especially post-November, was to have Erasmus assume his position. Coetzee predicted that he, as Springbok coach, would be reduced to a ceremonial role.
When Erasmus was officially unveiled as the new Bok coach on Thursday, some rejoiced over what they viewed as the correct turn-off towards the redemption of South African rugby. Others gave credit to the new coach’s apparent open-mindedness to tackle the problems endemic in the sport head on.
For Graeme Joffe, the questions of ability are secondary for the moment. The self-exiled journo caused a stir on Twitter when he posted “10 questions for Rassie Erasmus”. At the core of the list is the relationship between the new appointee and the bosses.
The 10 questions you wouldn’t have heard at the Rassie Erasmus/Bok press conference today … pic.twitter.com/xKorD4RWk3
— Graeme Joffe (@Joffersmyboy) March 1, 2018
“This is the major problem and should be fully investigated,” Joffe told the Mail & Guardian.
“How Rassie was appointed, the ethics, integrity of Saru, as well as the conflict of interests. Saru [chief executive] Jurie Roux and Rassie are very close friends and have business interests together along with their personal and Saru lawyer, Frikkie Erasmus.”
Asked to comment, Saru said: “The reports are inaccurate and false – the same process was applied as it has been historically — the individual believed to be the best candidate was appointed by the executive council who in terms of the constitution appoints the national coach.”
Erasmus’s contract, at the very least, stands apart from other recent hirings. He has been given a six-year contract, which theoretically puts him on a plane to next year’s World Cup in Japan and to France in 2023. Not only will he be flying as coach, but as director of rugby as well.
Ex-Springbok coach Jake White added to the speculation about Erasmus’s sweetheart deal in a blog on All Out Rugby: “In this game, if you can take a job where the board wants you, the [chief executive] is your mate and you get everything you ask for; it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven. It doesn’t get better than that.”
“I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’m very jealous — Allister Coetzee, Nick Mallett, Rudolf Straeuli and Ian McIntosh must feel the same way.”
Erasmus, meanwhile, has dismissed the significance of the length of his contract. On Tuesday, he told Sandile van Heerden on Kaya FM that he wouldn’t expect to last the full term if he didn’t deliver results.
Still getting requests for the Rassie Erasmus interview. Here it is https://t.co/Y09132MNll
— Sandile van Heerden (@SandilevHeerden) March 9, 2018
“People must realise that six years is definitely not what I’m guaranteed in this position,” he said. “Like all others that have coached the Springboks, if you don’t get results you’ll definitely be out of your position fairly quickly. You’ll have to ask the leadership, but I think the six years is more to secure continuity from their position.”
When asked whether he had “businesses” with Saru, Erasmus replied with a firm: “No, not at all.”
Saru, meanwhile, would not reveal the performance targets in his contract, saying employer-employee matters are confidential.
Sibusiso Mjikeliso, author of Being a Black Springbok: The Thando Manana Story, echoed the sentiment that Saru appears to take a different approach depending on who sits in the manager’s box.
“Early thoughts are that Rassie has received a ‘buy one, get one free’ contract from South African Rugby, in that he’s gotten two of Allister’s years plus the four he was probably going to get anyway,” he told the M&G.
“Secondly, it shows the kind of unfair treatment that some coaches at that level will get, as opposed to others. Jake White and Peter de Villiers are a couple of coaches that might have warranted the kind of support South African Rugby have thrown behind Rassie.”
Mjikeliso added: “The fact that he holds both positions is again something unprecedented, but I have always felt that a head coach is the director of rugby in any case..
As the debate over his hiring rages, Erasmus still has a massive job to do. The Boks have fallen out of the World Rugby top five and risk tumbling further, with Warren Gatland’s Wales lurking. Eddie Jones and England, meanwhile, visit our shores in June in what will be a true test of mettle. The three-match Test series will give a good indication of where the team is heading. Should the green-and-gold fail to show some form, South Africans will likely head into the World Cup overdosed on trepidation instead of excitement.
“He could very well be [the right person for the job] but only time will tell,” Joffe suggested. “It’s not an easy job but he has full control as director and head coach — so there will be no place to hide. He has had great success in the past, with his recent short stint at Munster being a standout.”
There is also the pressure to achieve the looming transformation deadline — a 50% player-of-colour representation rate by the World Cup. Erasmus has been open about the difficulty in achieving this, especially when players are not given enough playing time at franchise level.
Mjikeliso believes expectations of Erasmus or anybody else to produce drastic changes in such a relatively short period of time would be unrealistic: “The thing most people should get from the onset is that Rassie does not have a magic wand and he is no messiah. For him to reach his targets and produce a competitive team to, at the very least, beat England in June, he needs the kind of depth one can only develop in Super Rugby.
“There are entire positions that are completely bereft of black players who are of Test calibre, such as the second row. For some reason, the concentration of the black talent pool is towards outside backs, three-quarters, wings.”
He added: “The best Rassie can do is give opportunities to those that have already shown promise in their franchises such as Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am and Aphiwe Dyantyi.”