Johannesburg – Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has taken a cautious step after being confronted with the age-old question of how he wants his teams to play during the upcoming international season.
And it’s not surprising.
Every single Springbok coach has been confronted with the question in the past, and some have made some bold claims. Harry Viljoen wanted teams to run exclusively and shun kicking, others have talked about playing “without the ball” and suffocating opposition while some have relied exclusively on the physical traits of past Springbok teams to try and bully teams into submission, according to supersport .
In parts some of it has worked, but for the most part, it probably hasn’t and every Springbok coach has been confronted with the reality that while a blueprint and a vision for rugby exists in their minds, success on the field comes from results, and sometimes it takes whatever you can to get those results.
So when Erasmus was asked the question on Monday morning at his first press conference, it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t go the bold route. The Bok coach has watched from his position – first as Bok player, then assistant coach and more recently Director of Rugby, that such claims often come undone. And when they do teams succumb to the madness of the moment, and in Springbok rugby that is all too common. The pressure becomes unbearable and results start to suffer, and coaches veer off their chosen path to the extent that the public loses faith in their words.
Erasmus has seen this all before and he believes he will walk a different path.
So on Monday he chose the word “balance” – not a new concept for any coach, but he reminded all who would listen that the same concepts still apply, and the only real advantage he has over other Bok coaches is that Super Rugby teams have developed an “attacking mind-set” in recent seasons that will make “smart rugby” an easier concept to bring across to the players.
“I think that is a question that is always asked and I think the answer that coaches always give is that we want to find the balance,” Erasmus smiled.
“I’m not going to try and use the old cliché that we want to find the balance. I think it would be great if we could keep the traditional things that people talk about us, and where people used to fear us. If we could keep that it would be great and people know what that is.
“Or make sure we get that back and also get some smartness into our game where, if that doesn’t come off, what are the small little tactical things? Again the word is probably balance and I think what has been great is the way our franchises have attacked.
“The way the Bulls, Swys with the Lions, the Stormers and everybody has attacked, there is definitely an attacking mind-set in the country and unfortunately while we are doing that we are leaking a lot of tries and that is where the balance comes in.
“But yes our physicality has always been something that we have prided ourselves in – we have to maintain that and we have to bring smartness into our game because at that level physicality won’t just win test matches.”
So physicality and an attacking mind-set, coupled with the defensive structures that Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have been known for is the recipe, and pressure makes it more difficult.
And then comes the pressure. And when quizzed on Monday, Rassie was confident he would be able to handle the pressure that previous coaches have not been able to.
“No look it is without a doubt pressure, and it is what it is. I can tell you one thing, I’m not going to sit here and when I’m not good enough and don’t make it, try and explain why I should be here and why I should be kept here. I enjoy this, I think we have a good squad, I think we have a good coaching team and I think we have good players. But listen I think we can make it. If we are not going to make it I think the route will be the same as all the other coaches. That pressure comes with the job and I will be up for the challenge,” he adds.
“Not just with Heyneke, but with everybody. Remember when I was playing, Nick (Mallett) was still coaching, Harry (Viljoen) was still coaching me and Andre Markgraaff, all those guys I went through. Obviously I was also assistant coaches with Pieter (De Villiers) and I’ve been around the Springbok environment for a while now.
“I think the challenge is, without a doubt to stay clear in your thoughts and your ideas. Because the challenge is that we are in such a passionate country – fans, media, everyone has a great opinion because they love the game. And if you start listening to every guy’s opinion then sometimes you get cluttered in the way you want to do things. So I will try and stay clear in the way I think is the best, with being open-minded and taking on some good advice. I think if I can get that balance right, we will have a good chance.”
Erasmus knows the pitfalls, and knows how easily things can change. But his outlook is positive, and as long as he can stay true to his ideals, he should be fine.
But as history has proven, pressure is a funny thing, and it gets to even the strongest of individuals.
And how they handle it, often determines their tenure as coach.