By Nick Said
CAPETOWN (Reuters) – South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus’ outstanding rugby brain and ability to sell a game-plan to his players has been the catalyst for a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Springboks, according to former teammate Robbie Fleck.
Erasmus has taken the Boks from their worst ever season in 2016, when they won four out of 12 tests under former coach Allister Coetzee, to a Rugby World Cup final against England in Yokohama on Saturday.
Former centre Fleck, who won 31 international caps alongside Erasmus between 1999 and 2002, and as coach of the Stormers Super Rugby side for the past four years worked closely with his former team mate, never doubted he would improve the Boks.
“He has always had the ability to turn teams around,” Fleck told Reuters.
“He did it with the Cheetahs, who he took from no-hopers to the Currie Cup title and made them competitive in Super Rugby.
“He did it with the Stormers and had success with Munster (in Ireland). He has a clear vision on how the game should be played. How the Stormers and Munster played back then is how the Boks play now.”
Erasmus, 47, who coached the Stormers to their only Super Rugby final in 2010, is now aiming to lead the Boks to a third World Cup title after wins in 1995 and 2007.
South Africa have been criticised for a game-plan that is overly reliant on their powerful forwards and the boot of scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, but Fleck says set-piece superiority and territorial dominance have always been part of Erasmus’ plan.
“He is pretty clear in how he wants to coach. He is a very smart man, can sell an idea to players and then select a team to play for his game-plan.
“It may not be attractive to some, but he has never said it was about playing attractive rugby. For him it is all about winning.”
Fleck adds that Erasmus the player was a dynamic flanker and, in many ways, ahead of his time in the way he analysed the game.
“Even though we did not have much in terms of the current technology back then, he would do the extra video work and was always extremely up to date on the latest rugby trends.
“He would try get his hands on whatever he could to analyse the opposition and fed that information to his teammates.
“He was very much involved in terms of our game-plan, strategic moves and so on.”
Fleck says Erasmus also garnered great respect from teammates for his work ethic and ability on the pitch, often showing great spontaneity.
“He was an outstanding rugby player, in many ways different to the way he is as a coach. Despite all that knowledge of the opposition before games, he often played off the cuff and created opportunities for teammates with great bits of skill. He was a hell of a tackler and a hard grafter.”
And underneath Erasmus’ easy-going persona is a fierce competitor.
“He had that mindset of a fighter who never gives up and was massively competitive. He is still like that as a coach and I think that has earned him massive respect from his players.”
(Reporting By Nick Said; editing by Richard Pullin)