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South African renaissance? Or just another tangled labyrinth?

Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus. (Photo By Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Roar Guru
10th February, 2018
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1906 Reads

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.

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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.

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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)

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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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