The gospel according to Rassie Erasmus


The gospel according to Rassie Erasmus

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH looks at our national teddy bear who played barefoot rugby in Despatch and will always favour the guy who had a rough deal.


IN the life of every South African, there is a moment when you truly dislike Rassie Erasmus. It usually lasts a few days, then it passes. As it inevitably must. Rassie is our national teddy bear, the man we want to hold onto so we can feel safe.

My moment of Rassie-hate came somewhere in the late nineties when I saw him pull off a bit of brilliant foul play at Newlands, with De Wet Barry as the victim. The ref didn't see it but the Newlands crowd did. We shouted and yelled but the ref wouldn't listen. Do they ever listen?

I read Rassie's memoir, Rassie: Stories of Life and Rugby (Pan Macmillan South Africa), ghostwritten by David O'Sullivan, in the days before the Springboks had their troubles at the Stade de France in Paris against England.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

I approached the book with trepidation. Like most Springbok supporters, I am sentimentally attached to pleasant memories, and the most pleasant of all was November 2, 2019, when Rassie, through brilliant planning and motivation, guided the Springboks to an annihilation of their English opponents in the World Cup final. I didn't want a book like this to cloud my soul. Because, let's face it, the Boks haven't been able to activate their inner Rassie in the 2023 tournament. All our opponents have learned from Rassie and the Boks have scraped through games against teams suddenly strategising at our level. Thank goodness Rassie has better human material at his disposal, and that he's there to assist Jacques Nienaber for the big match against the All Blacks.

I only wish the whole country, especially those who present their platitudes on social media as rugby wisdom, could read this book.  O'Sullivan has triumphed in a difficult task — to let Rassie speak after conducting probing conversations and interviews with him.

Stylistically speaking, the English version is a bit more formal than the Afrikaans translation by Jaco Jacobs. I prefer the latter. It's entertaining and well infused with Rassie's idiosyncratic language. You know, the language we hear in the video clips from the Boks' motivational sessions.

Rassie's English isn't O'Sullivan's English, so one must intuitively make a leap of thought to accept the English version of the book as being Rassie's own, while the Afrikaans version immediately places you in his head. From his first words: “The name Rassie came later. The first 18 years of my life, I was just Hannie, the shortened version of the name on my birth certificate: Johan. It's me — just Johan Erasmus. No other names."

What makes Rassie: Stories of Life and Rugby such an exceptionally good book? The fact that the English version is the bestseller on Amazon's international rugby list is a good indication of the curiosity about Rassie's vision inside and far beyond our national borders. But the real reason is that O'Sullivan has written a page-turner. You fly through it.

He lets Rassie tell the story of his life, which is insightful because it provides the public with intimate knowledge of what happened behind the scenes in Erasmus's career. Any cynicism you might have is removed by the frankness with which Rassie tells of his childhood in Despatch, the family's relative poverty and precariousness due to his father's alcoholism, and the humble ideals he cherished as a youth.

Rassie reveals his life motto in a line (“If you want to achieve something you've never achieved before, you must do something you've never done before") but it's clear this perspective came long only after he left Despatch and found his rugby feet.

By the end of the book, you know it is Rassie's way of saying thank you to everyone who helped him progress from the kid who played street rugby with the Human children (including the well-known Pote) in Despatch to his position at the forefront of our rugby management.

Mea culpa

He's not the type of guy to boast, so the gems in the narrative have more to do with the way he can suppress his ego — through a massive mea culpa regarding the controversial video about Nic Berry's handling of the first post-Covid test against Warren Gatland's British Lions, among other things.

“Things didn't work out as I had planned. When the video leaked, it did great damage to my reputation, the Springboks and South Africa, and for that, I deeply regret it. I messed up. Without a doubt."

How can one not have respect for someone willing to make such acknowledgments? Coupled with this, he also provides the background, namely Berry's arrogant behaviour towards Siya Kolisi on the rugby field. You forgive him without hesitation for the slip-up.

This leads to the matter Rassie describes that suddenly makes you forget the despair that grips you when you see how badly things are going in our country. In 2012, he started working at the South African Rugby Union (Saru) as high-performance manager, with an emphasis on transformation. He had clearly seen the early problems surrounding so-called quota players, and in 2013 he started an elite development programme for players, also known as Pathway. Nienaber assisted him.

The programme has a large group of talent scouts under its wing, identifying players from the under-15 level. He explains how it works and how it has changed people's lives. Transformation has many facets. It changes the face of SA rugby and it changes the career paths of players and the people around them. Among the players who come from the ranks of the elite development programme are Aphelele Fassi, Jaden Hendrikse, Curwin Bosch, Sbu Nkosi, Canan Moodie, Damian Willemse, Salmaan Moerat and Sanele Nohamba. Later, Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am also caught their eyes.

Dirt road

Rassie clearly has an affinity for people who, like him, had a difficult childhood. “I choose a guy based on his rugby talent. But (and perhaps it's a character flaw) if you give me two players and I see one has walked the dirt road while the other walked the paved road, then I choose the dirt road guy."

After the success of the elite development programme, Rassie convinced Saru to establish the mobi unit. It consists of five coaches, each with a speciality, travelling the country to assist school coaches in honing the skills of young players.

The fruits of Rassie's labour are not the 2019 and 2023 World Cup successes. We will see the true results only in the 2030s when the programmes produce a new generation of Goliath tamers and the members of Rassie's Bok team spread the gospel to rugby players across the country.

Of course, it's enjoyable to read between the lines about how Peter de Villiers, Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee lost their way. (Rassie doesn't mention it by name, but take it from me, hubris is a menace. He shares a wonderful quote from his mother: “I've already learned from my mistakes, don't let me have to learn from yours.")

Rassie also cites something his father said: “If you love something and can no longer contribute, you must love it enough to let it go."

Whatever happens on Saturday in Paris, I hope Rassie remains involved with the elite development programme. It's his great legacy — that is the message of Rassie: Stories about Rugby and Life. He brought about a transformation that gives the entire country hope and helps us understand one another better.

We cannot afford for Rassie to step away from rugby now.


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