Rassie Erasmus determined to keep tourists on track to show true colours - The Sunday Times
Quota system has been a curse for South Africa but times are changing
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was criticised in South Africa after the publication of a book in which he was quoted as saying “rugby wasn’t a black man’s sport” and that the Springboks were “the only team in sport that doesn’t pick its best team”.
Hansen was accused of ignorance, but the end-game of the Springboks v All Blacks Test in Pretoria three weeks ago might lead you to suspect he has a point and that the racial selection quota imposed by the South African government inhibits the Boks’ chances of success.
They led 30-13 after 60 minutes, at which point coach Rassie Erasmus began to empty his bench. Off went the influential Malcolm Marx, replaced by Mbongeni Mbonambi; Willie le Roux was replaced by Damian Willemse, and so on. Six of seven substitutions made in the final quarter involved a white man being replaced by a black player. New Zealand won 32-30. It’s inevitable people should ask whether the Boks paid a big price for political correctness.
This theme was taken up enthusiastically in New Zealand. The Boks are their oldest rivals and that rivalry is heading towards an explosive meeting in Yokohama on the opening weekend of next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Kiwi commentators remarked how difficult it would be for Erasmus next year with increased transformation targets. As it stands, he is obliged to average at least 45% non-white players in his 23-man squads across the season. In 2019, that will increase to 50%.
The mood in South Africa is more optimistic, based on an improved performance in the Rugby Championship — including a win in Wellington — but also because the new inclusivity is seen to be based on solid foundations, driven by a man who is committed to nurturing black talent through a high-performance culture.
Can Erasmus achieve transformation and continue to win? According to Brendan Venter, a World Cup-winning Bok and assistant coach under Allister Coetzee, the key to success is keeping the relatively small pool of high-quality black players fit.
“Rassie is under pressure with those targets,” says Venter. “He could have said, ‘Judge me on performance’ like previous coaches but he wanted to be different. He said, ‘Judge me on results and judge me on transformation’.
That was a mistake. He needs to be picking 11 players of colour out of 23 to be above 45% and next year it’s higher. As things stand, he’s averaging nine but a lot of that is because of injuries. For now there’s not the same depth of quality when it comes to players of colour. He needs some common sense and leniency.”
Erasmus has built enormous goodwill within the black community by his choice of captain. Siya Kolisi’s middling form meant he was a questionable choice to start in the June series against England but he has repaid Erasmus’s faith. Those who attended the second Test in the Free State stadium — an Afrikaner fortress of old — say a spine-tingling roar greeted Kolisi when he led out the Boks.
One of those was Vata Ngobeni, a reporter for Independent Media. He describes a hugely popular character within the squad who is representative of South Africa in 2018, who is married to a white woman, supports his old club in the Zwide township in terms of providing kit and pays transport costs for young players. “The initial euphoria of having a black captain overshadowed the fact that Siya wasn’t playing his best rugby,” says Ngobeni. “But look at his stats in the Rugby Championship and you can see he is one of the best players in the side.
“Just talking to black people, there’s a lot of positive sentiment around the inclusivity of black players in the Springboks. There are more black people attending matches and there is even a group called the Gwijo Squad who sing traditional African songs. Some of the black players come over and sing with them after games. People have fallen in love with a team they hated only a few years back because of the lack of transformation.”
While his focus is on the four-Test tour which begins in Twickenham on Saturday, Erasmus’ most significant work will be as Saru’s director of rugby: to streamline the provinces and their academies to ensure that the best talent comes through.
We always felt South Africa would become world-beaters again if they could channel their natural talent effectively. The next four weeks should reveal something of the Erasmus effect, even it’s still in its initial phase.