South African renaissance? Or just another tangled labyrinth?

Harry Jones Roar Guru

By Harry Jones, Harry Jones is a Roar Guru

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    In academia, if one muses about the philosophy of Erasmus, most would assume the subject was Desiderius Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist thinker of the Northern Renaissance in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.

    Treating the New Testament more as historical text than sacred breath of God, Erasmus was a true independent, rejecting both Martin Luther’s doctrine of predestination and the Popes’ claims of divine power; posing instead a classical and cosmopolitan third way. Leaving monasticism, he chose instead this mindset: “All sound learning is secular learning.”

    He had the notion – novel at the time – that reading the New Testament required fluency in Greek. His masterpiece “De pueris instituendis” expresses faith in the power of education. In a sense, Erasmus believed “one is what one reads.” He much preferred letters of antiquity over “the stupid and tyrannical fables of King Arthur.”

    For most of his life, he travelled far from home, preferring the peace of the Alps over the harsh internecine debates of the Low Countries. His most controversial stances may have been to let priests marry and to give laity the chalice, but his ideas on free had the most lasting impact on Western thought.

    He could see many sides of an issue, and was by nature a skeptic of any easy answer. He thought his faith was purified, not corrupted, by a deeper knowledge of its historic roots.

    Traditionalists smeared his description of the ‘tangled labyrinth’ of free choice as radical liberalism. By daring to ask whether mankind was or could be ‘good’ through choices, he triggered rage and accusations of heresy. Erasmus’ eventual doctrine was ‘synergism’, in which both God and mankind make equal contributions to goodness: a joint venture or a partnership. Or as a later theologian, John Wesley, put it: “God helps those who help themselves.”

    In international elite sport, we now have the new Erasmus, the irascible Dutchman named Rassie, who was once a mobile, ball-playing Springbok flanker and innovative Cheetah coach in South Africa’s most traditionalist rugby heartland. He then built the first analytics institute for SARU (and still owns the intellectual property individually), and became more loved abroad, by Munster’s players and fans, by having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Top 14 and Aviva opponents in the European tournaments.

    Erasmus may look like the quintessential hard Bok loose forward: square-jawed and six foot three, rangy with huge hands, and that deep confidence of athletic superiority won in 36 caps full of highlight moments. He still looks capable of playing club rugby, his rugby language is pure Saffa, and he won’t ever be accused of being soft.

    But he was always a cerebral player. He only escaped rugby heresy charges because the offloads and chips and overhand NFL throws he risked usually worked. He was viewed more as a master craftsman than a physical brute.

    As a coach, he loves to learn and analyse opponent tendencies. He can distinguish between maul tactics, categorising a Castres maul from a Clermont drive with clear labels and sub-types, even calibrating the time and phase of each team.

    The mass exodus of South African rugby players to France and the U.K. gave Erasmus a unique competitive advantage over peers, but he was always a ‘coach-type’ player, and now is a ‘player’s coach.’

    What is the rugby Erasmus’ philosophy? Maybe it is similar to his Dutch Renaissance ancestor’s: dig deep into knowledge, remain skeptical until proof emerges, but resist the idea “we do it this way, because this is how we’ve always done it.”

    He insists on solid platforms for rugby. His data tells him the same thing all coaches know: lineouts provide the highest source for tries and points in all tournaments everywhere, with counterattacks the clear second-best attack ball, but having a scrum under pressure forces team into damage control mentality.

    He will insist on a strong maul, with educated rippers, and purposeful movements. He will not blame players for having a go, but only if they are operating within their proven skillset. He does not forego the use of brutal force phase-ball around the corners of rucks.

    “The nice thing about South Africa is that you get these monsters of guys who want contact, but it’s difficult to coach a change after the age of twenty. You don’t change a guy’s habits at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three; he’s moulded into something. It can be nice in one sense, maybe in wet weather against certain teams, but he tends to stay with that kind of game even when a coach wants to change it.”

    Rassie Erasmus

    (Photo By Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

    What will Erasmus want in a Bok, if he can convince South Africa’s notoriously diverse and stubborn unions to provide him prototypes?

    Maybe he wants young Rassies, but upskilled: “The way I played was to be instinctive, to take opportunities. A simple, stupid example is that all the guys nowadays can pass on their left side and pass on their right side. When I was an amateur, I couldn’t! So I wouldn’t throw a long pass to my weak side, because we didn’t have time to work on that. What I’m trying to say is that if it’s within your skill set and we can score points from that opportunity, bloody go for it!”

    Erasmus always had a go, and from 1997 to 2000 as a linking Bok loose forward, he had a former No 8 coach named Nick Mallet, who preached opportunism en route to a record-tying 17 straight Bok wins and a world number one ranking. What did he take from Mallet? “In a short space of time, you had to give guys a singular philosophy and I think Nick Mallet was fantastic at that.”

    What else does he think a coach should build? Erasmus believes in the power of not wanting to disappoint your coach and your teammates. “I would like players to have the feeling that we are committed because we don’t want to disappoint one another, not because we are afraid of one another or embarrassed of one another.”

    He is also a strong adherent to aura, and embracing the power of history.

    Do not expect a tame Bokling side to face up to Eddie Jones’ England, this June. Erasmus will tap into traditional Saffa aggression and self-belief bordering on arrogance, but try to set African speed free on the wings and flanks, too.

    He won’t be afraid to try something different. Famously, he used coloured lights (“Disco Erasmus”) on the roof of the Cheetahs’ stadium to communicate play calls. “But before you can get to that creative side of things, you must get the team 100 per cent aligned in the way we do things. You can’t just do funny, weird, creative things when you don’t have the base of philosophy and work ethic and the cause and why we’re doing this. If we’ve got that baseline, then there’s space for doing creative things.”

    Is South African rugby on the verge of a Renaissance? Or will it just be another tangled labyrinth?

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    The Crowd Says (68)

    • Roar Guru

      February 11th 2018 @ 6:14am
      Corne Van Vuuren said | February 11th 2018 @ 6:14am | ! Report

      Well if we can’t put together a squad that are physical, have skills, show 80 minutes of i tensity and have a modicom of intelligence and the ability to recognice the “moments” then as smart and innovative as Rassie is, it will be all for nought

      • February 11th 2018 @ 8:48pm
        cuw said | February 11th 2018 @ 8:48pm | ! Report

        maybe u need to go back to the basics of saffa rugger – physicality and physical fitness.

        ur 7S team shows both of those traits round after round. ok – they may lose a few but it is an abridged game.

        • February 11th 2018 @ 9:44pm
          Fionn said | February 11th 2018 @ 9:44pm | ! Report

          I still think South Africa has a squad to pick from that can match it with England and even New Zealand.

          Backs are probably inferior but forwards just as good.

          • Roar Guru

            February 11th 2018 @ 9:56pm
            Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 9:56pm | ! Report

            Fionn …

            I know it was only one match, but the Boklings’ narrow loss at Newlands to the All Blacks (just needed Dummy de Allende not to charge into Lima S) showed a young, hungry pack at its best. Kitshoff, Etzebeth, PSDT, du Preez, Marx …

            Rassie will have a pack.

            As BB asks: who will be our playmakers?

            • February 13th 2018 @ 1:55pm
              rico said | February 13th 2018 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

              after the disaster in NZ (57 to 0)they had to show something
              Could depend on who he’s allowed to pick,dropping two teams from the SA conference hasn’t work with those teams now in pro 12 and the players not in the remaining super 15 sides ,like the Aust conference
              Still going to be an interesting year will be happy if they take one of Eng(would like the series but that could be too wishful)

            • February 13th 2018 @ 5:11pm
              Ex force fan said | February 13th 2018 @ 5:11pm | ! Report

              In that game they picked their best pack – there were no passengers or players to make up a quata! This.was the team with the least quota players used in the year. Kitchoff played out of his skin but was then dropped for Beast for the next game. Good performers must be rewarded even if it means dropping an established player – coaching 101. Coetzee did not cultivate competition for places… in my opinion a result from pressure to meet quotas.

          • Roar Guru

            February 12th 2018 @ 9:25am
            stillmissit said | February 12th 2018 @ 9:25am | ! Report

            Fionn: I think they have the talent in the backs but it is the selections and tactics that let them down. Rassie might change that if SARU let him……

        • Roar Guru

          February 11th 2018 @ 9:58pm
          Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 9:58pm | ! Report


          I’d like to see “80 Minutes of Hell” from the Boks, yes.

          Torrid, terrible, tenacious, tough …

          Wouldn’t mind more biff, either …

        • Roar Guru

          February 12th 2018 @ 1:32am
          Corne Van Vuuren said | February 12th 2018 @ 1:32am | ! Report

          Cuw I think our biggest issue is lack of physicality in the back line.

          I was watching England vs Wales yesterday, four things it showed me, they have fast players out wide, they have a physical team, they kick very well tactically, and Mike Brown has excellent aeril skills

      • Roar Guru

        February 11th 2018 @ 9:51pm
        Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 9:51pm | ! Report

        Brother Biltong

        You and I know there are 30 forwards who can meet your list of qualifications; but who will be our scrumhalf???????????

        • Roar Guru

          February 12th 2018 @ 1:30am
          Corne Van Vuuren said | February 12th 2018 @ 1:30am | ! Report

          Harry a this pint I would rather hav Rassie pick a skilled wing with good feet at scrum half than any scrum half we have

          • Roar Guru

            February 12th 2018 @ 1:50am
            Harry Jones said | February 12th 2018 @ 1:50am | ! Report

            I think Cheslin Kolbe could’ve been a good scrummie

    • February 11th 2018 @ 7:48am
      Onside said | February 11th 2018 @ 7:48am | ! Report

      I enjoyed reading your story. It’s Sunday morning and this is better than anything in the weekend papers. I don’t have an opinion , but thanks for the contribution.

      • Roar Guru

        February 11th 2018 @ 9:58pm
        Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 9:58pm | ! Report

        Cheers, Onside.

        We try to elevate Rugby …

    • Columnist

      February 11th 2018 @ 11:34am
      Geoff Parkes said | February 11th 2018 @ 11:34am | ! Report

      “God helps those who help themselves”

      Never a truer word spoken Harry!

      • February 11th 2018 @ 1:24pm
        Ben said | February 11th 2018 @ 1:24pm | ! Report

        My art teacher had a sign on her class door:
        “God helps those who help themselves. But God help those whom i find helping themselves”.

      • Roar Guru

        February 11th 2018 @ 10:00pm
        Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 10:00pm | ! Report

        Yes, GP. If we found ourselves in a small boat in a big storm on a big lake, you can pray all you want, AS you row to the right shoreline.

        • February 13th 2018 @ 8:08pm
          sheek said | February 13th 2018 @ 8:08pm | ! Report

          But what if the left shoreline is closer…..???

          • Roar Guru

            February 13th 2018 @ 9:09pm
            Harry Jones said | February 13th 2018 @ 9:09pm | ! Report

            Beware the lee shore

    • February 11th 2018 @ 11:38am
      Tooly said | February 11th 2018 @ 11:38am | ! Report

      We are on par with SA and we both have idiotic selection processes ; they have the Government and we have Chekko . Erasmus is a good move and if he can use his best players they will be competitive at the WC .
      Unless there is a drastic change in direction here we will struggle .

      • Roar Guru

        February 11th 2018 @ 10:02pm
        Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 10:02pm | ! Report

        Rassie needs to settle on his best:

        Back three

        Those will NOT necessarily match Coetzee’s selections ..,

        If he gets the players and the shape and the run-pass-kick ratio right, Boks can beat England.

        England has only won thrice in SA after a century of trying.

    • Roar Guru

      February 11th 2018 @ 11:56am
      stillmissit said | February 11th 2018 @ 11:56am | ! Report

      Every sensible rugby player in the world wants to see South Africa rugby strong again. It is a powerful rugby country with a great history on the field. I played there for 3 seasons and Villagers in Cape Town was the best rugby club I played for in my 11 years of senior rugby.

      The rugby ethos was, play hard, uncompromising rugby, respect the opposition and play hard in the club house after the game.

      Would love to see them at the top of the rugby world again.

      • Roar Guru

        February 11th 2018 @ 10:03pm
        Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 10:03pm | ! Report



        Are you following the epic fortunes of False Bay RC?

        • Roar Guru

          February 12th 2018 @ 9:10am
          stillmissit said | February 12th 2018 @ 9:10am | ! Report

          No Harry but I remember one game against them and they had a huge farmer nearly 7ft tall and my capt said I had to stop him in the lineout. I let him jump and punched him in the ribs, he landed, turned, picked me up (6’4″ and over 100kgs) looked me in the eyes and said in a broad Afrikaans “If you do that again I will Kill you”. I figured he deserved to win all the line outs!

          What is happening with False Bay it wasn’t obvious from their web site? False Bay were rough as guts when I played and one spectator threw a push bike in front of our 1st grade winger on his way to the try line – then on his way to hospital!

          False Bay are certainly doing well, Stellenbosch still #1 in 1st grade, some things don’t change. Villagers came last, now that is a pity for a club who had several Springboks current and past when I was there.

          • Roar Guru

            February 12th 2018 @ 8:17pm
            Harry Jones said | February 12th 2018 @ 8:17pm | ! Report

            Great story!

            False Bay just keeps winning and winning …

    • February 11th 2018 @ 12:18pm
      redbull said | February 11th 2018 @ 12:18pm | ! Report

      A fantastic read on both of the Erasmus personas (Erasmii?). Wonderful to get the former into a sporting piece. If he had been more bold European history could have been very different. But alas, he left the continent to the tender mercies of Luther who was willing to see the whole thing burn to push his own dogma.

      Lets hope the latter Erasmus holds to his own beliefs.

      • Roar Guru

        February 11th 2018 @ 10:07pm
        Harry Jones said | February 11th 2018 @ 10:07pm | ! Report

        Every Bok coach has to walk a gauntlet of race, scrutiny, envy, schadenfreude, and malice.

        Rassie knows all of it better than anyone, having watched the Mallet saga up close.

        The major advantages he has are:

        1/ Coetzee was so bad. Sooooo bad.
        2/ He has a decade of data. SARU doesn’t own it. Rassie does.

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