Thursday 21 November 2019

Erasmus restores Springbok pride

South Africa 32 England 12

The weight of a nation: Springboks captain Siya Kolisi and South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Tokyo. Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images/Getty Images
The weight of a nation: Springboks captain Siya Kolisi and South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Tokyo. Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Rassie Erasmus assumed a statesmanlike quality in the aftermath of the Springboks' awesome World Cup final performance in Yokohama and a couple of us dotted around the press conference room were instantly transported back to that terrible time in UL when Anthony Foley had just passed away and the newly-arrived director of rugby spoke stoically and superbly as the face of Munster Rugby.

This former soldier knows how to lead. His time in Ireland came to an abrupt end and left a bitter taste locally, but the province can take pride in their contribution to this success.

The director of rugby learnt as much as he could during the 20 months he spent in Ireland and he'll apply what he likes to the South African system in the coming years.

Already, he is planning for the arrival of Warren Gatland and the Lions in less than two years' time; by then he'll have taken a back seat with his defence coach Jacques Nienaber - who joined him at Munster - expected to front the team. The two will continue to work closely.

No coach works under the same conditions; politics in South Africa remains uniquely challenging. As Erasmus said, the country is a dangerous, complicated place and while victory will lift spirits it would be too much of a burden to place on a group of players to expect them to change lives.

He spoke of turning pressure into hope; of the reality of life in South Africa where life is cheap and dangerous; of the intense political differences in the troubled Rainbow Nation which is still dealing with the aftermath of apartheid, with corruption and with the rising temperatures that are making life harder to live.

South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus lifts the Webb Ellis Cup. Photo: Matthew Childs/Reuters
South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus lifts the Webb Ellis Cup. Photo: Matthew Childs/Reuters

Rather than a burden, he wanted the players to embrace the privilege of representing their nation on the global stage and giving a struggling people hope.

No one embodies this team like the captain Siya Kolisi.

Others could collapse under the weight of the symbolism of being his country's first black skipper, but the 28-year-old, who rose from a childhood scrapping for survival in a Port Elizabeth township, has embraced the role and spoke brilliantly alongside his coach. Like his skipper, the winning try-scorer Makazole Mapimpi grew up in humble conditions outside the southern city of Port Elizabeth. He didn't play for a private schools team, but he built his career steadily. Two seasons ago, he was the villain when South Africa were hammered by a record score by New Zealand in Albany.

Back then, he was an exciting PRO14 winger with the Cheetahs but now he's the first man to score a World Cup final try for South Africa.

England's Jonny May (right) tackles South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
England's Jonny May (right) tackles South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

"It means a lot, not for me, but for the boys from the rural area, for the boys who didn't go to private school," the softly-spoken Mapimpi said in the aftermath. "I feel like it's not about me, it's not just for me to play rugby, it's not just for me.

Ladder

"Five years back, I was playing Sunday league rugby, at a club. There's no professional league in the rural areas and one of my friends told me, 'Listen, you can make it man'. I told the guy, 'Listen, how can I make it man? There's no one here for me. There's no-one watching me.' The guy said, 'Just keep going. You can make it'."

Step by step, he rose up the ladder from the club rugby to Currie Cup and on to Super Rugby, the PRO14 and then to the Springboks. The scars on his face tell of a tough upbringing; now he's a symbol for his team.

South Africa's Handre Pollard kicks a penalty. Photo: Ashley Western/PA Wire
South Africa's Handre Pollard kicks a penalty. Photo: Ashley Western/PA Wire

"I'm blessed. I've seen a lot of things happen and I know I think about some things that affect us in South Africa," he said.

"I've seen a lot of things happen, things I don't like. There's a lot of pressure, we want things for South Africa; we fight for that, for our country. I think it's true for all of us.

"There's a lot of things bad in South Africa that affect all of us Springboks, girls get raped, there's murders... I felt those things and this achievement is for the team. We worked hard for our country."

South Africa's traditional power game was awesome to behold; they obliterated England's scrum and won the ground-game with their carrying. When they went to the air, they found success there and, when the men in white coughed up penalties, Handré Pollard was accurate.

With the highly organised and emotionally intelligent Erasmus at the helm, the potential for South Africa is infinite. Nobody produces the same calibre of athlete.

In the immediacy of the trophy lift, the spectre of winger Aphiwe Diyanti's failed drugs test did not come up but it will cloud this victory for some, as will the case second-row Eben Etzebeth faces when he returns home amidst allegations of involvement in a racially motivated attack in the weeks before the World Cup. That case warns against over-simplifying the narrative of this win, but as an exercise in management, it was a masterclass.

The captain pointedly spoke of the coach's capacity to focus the players' minds on the important things in life, rather than extraneous elements that detracted from their focus.

"I think the first meeting we had was in Johannesburg and it was just straightforward and he told us exactly what we were doing as players," Kolisi said. "A lot of us were getting quite a lot of money and doing all the things off the field full steam, trying to inspire people; but we didn't make rugby the main thing.

Shift

"He told us straight that it has to change. The shift has to come. Rugby is more important and the Springboks are more important than our personal goals. Because there are so many people who spent their last salary to come and watch us play, and they want to see us give our best on and off the field, and that was the change of mindset.

"We started working hard and we stopped doing so much social media just to make sure that we put heart and soul on and off the field. The most important thing that he brought in was honesty."

Erasmus's brains and the Springbok brawn are a potent combination, with Kolisi at the helm, their off-pitch power matches their on-pitch might. They are deserved world champions.

Irish Independent

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