INSIDER: Transformation, not the World Cup, may be Rassie's greatest legacy

rugby12 October 2023 08:23| © SuperSport
By:Brenden Nel
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Rassie Erasmus © Gallo Images

There is a moment in his biography when SA Rugby’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus is asked by his biographer David O’Sullivan if holding up the Rugby World Cup in 2019 was his greatest sporting moment.

And Erasmus, true to his character, answers no. What was better, he says, was watching players that people had doubted - like Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe - score the tries in the World Cup final with such ease.

It’s a thread that has followed Erasmus around since he took the position for the first time in 2011 at SA Rugby and a dream that is slowly being fulfilled. To create a situation where the Springboks are no longer seen in terms of quotas or transformation but rather in terms of playing ability and being representative of the entire nation.

And while the World Cup victory in 2019 may be the pinnacle of his influence on SA Rugby, with a possible repeat facing a tough road ahead in the playoffs from this weekend, arguably Erasmus’ greatest victory in SA Rugby terms has been the transformation of rugby in the country into an inclusive, encompassing system that brings all the available talent into the Bok system.

It is by no means perfect, and there will always be a few players who slip through the net, who are snapped up by richer, foreign rugby countries, but for the most part the Elite Player Development (EPD) programme is possibly his greatest legacy to SA Rugby and the importance that it continue cannot be underestimated.

That’s why it is refreshing to hear Erasmus talk about transformation in SA Rugby, about his goals and successes, and how people should “stop counting numbers” and focus on the real rugby talent that is in the country.

It is a tale of hard work and sacrifice, where SA Rugby are ultimately getting it right, and why the old stereotypes that have plagued SA Rugby for years are slowly falling apart. There may be those who cling to them for years to come, and that is probably inevitable, but transformation is not a taboo word in SA Rugby anymore.


“If you talk about tranformation in any other country in the world, in any other place, it means change.”

These words have been key for Erasmus, who despite the complex nature of the South African landscape, recognised the need for change in the way the system was run. While elite pathways have been created and are in place from under-16 level, there was a need to ensure that all the talent was being seen, and that meant that those outside the traditional top schools, the late bloomers and others needed a way into the system when they were found.

The EPD gave them this option, and in conjunction with the mobi-unit - a unit of top coaches that is employed around the country to help franchises, but also scout talent - this pathway became an open one.

And it has two of the greatest examples of success from the 2019 World Cup - the architect and scorer of the first World Cup try - Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi, who were both found through this programme.

“The EPD is something we’re really proud of. After 2011 I appointed a High Performance Manager and we decided to try and create a pathway for players - especially black players into the system. The thing that makes me happy about the pathways is that there are players - and here people may say ‘if you weren’t in this squad or that squad, you don’t make it’. But (Makazole) Mapimpi was one of those players. He was 29 and as the mobi-unit we found him in Border when Border was under administration,” Erasmus explained in a recent interview on the podcast To the Last Drop.

“We found Lukhanyo Am the same way. We found a guy like Kurt-Lee Arendse because we have scouts everywhere. Chean Roux phoned me up and said there is a guy here who is good. But then there are the typical guys - the Salmaan Moerats and Jaden Hendrikse’s - the guys who have come through the system since under 15 and we know them.

“That’s why the EPD is so important, that it continues going and if people don’t understand what it does, and how it works, it won’t. People like to call transformation “Black in, White out” but for us transformation is change - we have to change something.

“If we don’t change something at our under 15 level, how does our SA Schools team, and our Junior Springboks team, how will they be representative of our country at Springbok level.

“I’m glad that the EPD system works, but it didn’t filter so much that the outliers - the guys who didn’t make a Craven Week side - doesn’t have a way back into the system - like a Makazole Mapimpi for instance.”


Now there are also what Erasmus calls “roadmaps” on players that are in the Springboks long term visions. Players are dissected, given the tools to fix their weaknesses but also taken in a holistic view, and not just rugby.

Obviously players have to have a skillset for their position, but the roadmap is more than that. It takes into account their mental abilities, their entitlement in a team environment and the way they handle off field issues.

In short, a brilliant player may be overlooked if he is too entitled while a fighter, someone with lesser talent, but more abilities that enhance a team environment may be elevated.

And it isn’t about numbers or colours, it is about making sure that a system is inclusive and avoids the mistakes of the past.

“When I say this people may say you are trying to put yourself in all these scenarios. But I was born in 1972. When I was in the army in 1992, it was when everything changed in South Africa. So I was a fan of the 1995 team. I started playing for the Springboks in 1996, so I experienced as a player when Rian Oberholzer spoke before the Wales test in 1999. It was a decision that Deon Kayser was put into the side and Stefan Terblanche was taken out - I was a player then.

“And then when Laurie Mains came in as coach and then the game went professional and I went to the Lions. I was there when Kerry Packer tried to take over the game in 1996 and signed all those guys.

“My era was fan, player, semi-professional, professional - when they called it quotas, when they called it transformation and when they called it targets. I was there when I say players being embarrassed - either a black player being called a quota and being embarrassed, or a white player being left out because a quota player took his place.

“You experience that as a captain when you have to do a team talk, and you see that this doesn’t work. And that goes on - when the franchises came in. You lived through all of those things, and by that I mean I’ve seen all of the mistakes.

“I can’t point fingers at SA Rugby, because I was part of those mistakes, part of things that people didn’t do things the right way.

“I think we are now at a point where rugby can work, rugby can be successful - not just on the scoreboard. We shouldn’t just park the things that work, we should continue with it. The big thing though is that transformation isn’t “black in, white out”

“That is the immediate reaction when you talk about transformation in South Africa. If you talk about transformation in any other country in the world, in any other place, it means change.”


And Erasmus is upfront about the progress and challenges and where the country needs to be. And he believes the time is now to focus on the talent and not on numbers.

“The moment that something becomes natural - normal - that you don’t have to plaster over something. Take an example, and this might be specific. If you take the two teams we played this year - some guys might come to you and say there are only eight players of colour in the side. And I would say ‘please guys, understand we have a transformation charter and things, but please remember in the old days it was a guy who came on in the last five minutes of the game.

“We now start with an Ox (Nche), a Bongi (Mbonambi), a Joseph (Dweba) and Marvin (Orie) and in the other team there is perhaps 10. So stop counting numbers, start seeing the fact that over two weekends we had 17 guys who played in two teams.

“But when you are stuck in the past - and I’ve got many Afrikaans friends, black friends, dispatch boyties and others who say ‘you’re just dancing to the tune of your paymaster’. But guys how did we win the World Cup if I’m dancing to the tune of my paymaster? How do we beat England and get Eddie Jones out of a job? Who can do so well and not pick the best guys, but still win the World Cup?

“I hope this doesn’t cause major ructions but that is why people must stop counting and see it is natural, we’re going to go on now. For me that is still a bit of a frustrating part when people say - hey we’ve caught you out. There is nothing to be caught out on.”


Erasmus knows that he may not be in the job forever. The job is a taxing one and rises and falls with the results of the national teams.

But he hopes he has put in place a system that will become his legacy, a system that will continue to produce top quality players from across the demographics of the country for years to come.

And his biggest fear is that when he leaves, it may collapse.

“For me if I move on and that collapses, it would be heartbreaking. Not because I’m this fighter for whats right or wrong, but because our system is working. Not just EPD and transformation - we are using every background, knowledge, culture, private school, a guy from dispatch and a guy who hasn’t opened a laptop before - and we get them to believe in each other.

“We get them to compete against the Euro and rich countries like England. For me I’m nervous that this will stop.”

It is in South African rugby’s long term interest to ensure that this never does.