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Rassie has once again masterfully manipulated the storyline

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus during a South Africa rugby media conference at The Radisson Blu St Helens Hotel in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It lasted only 20 minutes and 34 seconds, but the brief monologue from Rassie Erasmus on Wednesday evening contained multiple plot lines.

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First, there was the title. ‘Lekka Chat (15min only)’, four words that contained two lies. It might have been lekka (the Afrikaans word for nice) but it wasn’t a chat. A back-and-forth dialogue with the public was promised for a later date.

Nor was it 15 minutes. That is not surprising given Erasmus’ propensity for delving down cognitive tangents and providing caveats for his caveats. His is a mind constantly at work. The electrical activity in his brain could solve South Africa’s power shortages if only it could be harnessed.

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In truth, the two lies told in the headline are minor ones. They’re barely lies at all. But what they reveal is that Erasmus can’t be analysed at face value. Like an improvising jazz drummer he’s constantly playing on a different beat.

In the background, just over Erasmus’ left shoulder, was a shelf stacked with files. Who knows what rugby secrets are stored away in those documents? Does one contain a follow up to “The Move”, the famous maul that folded the English pack to win a penalty in the 2019 World Cup final? Is there a plan to beat either France or New Zealand in next year’s quarterfinal? Maybe it’s all a ruse and those folders simply contain recipes for the perfect braai.

Either way, Erasmus managed to encapsulate two important traits one looks for in a leader. His demeanor was approachable and relaxed. He’d be welcome at any braai in the country. But he still conveyed a sense of authority. There’s safety in his gruff voice and broad shoulders. If this was indeed a tête-à-tête and one asked him a probing question, it’s quite possible he would have swivelled on his chair, plucked down a file and flipped to the page with the right answer.

For those viewers who had not switched to a full screen, another narrative device was found in the top left corner, beyond the boundary of the video itself. Erasmus’ avatar on Vimeo is a clenched fist raised in front of a South African flag. The fist also bears the colours of the flag. This stock image – found on the first page of a Google search for ‘South Africa flag fist’ – speaks volumes.

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Ever since his appointment in 2017 as director of rugby he has remained conscious of the social importance of the Springboks. He has famously said that winning is his priority, that “keeping the main thing the main thing” is how he’d win the public’s love. But he has understood better than any of his predecessors that South Africa’s national rugby side is perhaps the country’s greatest cultural export. His job is inexorably linked with the ennoblement of those who support the green and gold.

We’re halfway through this article and not a word yet for the content of Erasmus’ speech. “Why would I do this?” he asked before explaining that he wanted to cut through the regular press conference guff and media tinted discourse. This was a chance for him to address the fans where they live, without the gatekeepers and watchdogs.

In truth, it was mostly forgettable. Players are impacted by social media? Who knew? The opinions of fans and journalists create a groundswell of conflicting emotions for coaches? You don’t say?

Where was the juice? Where was the friction? This was a fantastic opportunity to set the record straight on a number of topics including the way we interpret a referee’s performance and how we might fairly criticise them. We signed up for a five course meal and got just a small salad to nibble.

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One interesting point centred on the #StrongerToegther campaign launched in 2019. Erasmus outlined the three main pillars that would help cultivate a cohesive rugby culture in the country. The first two pillars would be the playing group, including backroom staff, and the fans who support them. Acting as a conduit would be the media. There would be a proviso.

“They would report, hopefully accurately, to the supporters,” Erasmus said. “We do the main thing as well as we can. We give access to the media as well as we can and they hopefully report correctly to the fans so that they can form an opinion on what they see.

“The narrative that the media puts out there will hopefully be correct and the truth from what they’ve seen during the week.”

Erasmus later goes on to say that he was “against” the media. That, as a developing coach in the mid-2000s, he was sceptical of the role of journalists and social media influencers who helped shape public opinion.

He’s come around since. So much so that he is now the master of his own narrative. On that front he is unrivalled. No other director of rugby or head coach manipulates the story like he does. He might not have always understood the machinations of social media but he certainly does now.

It is clear from hearing him speak of the power of a tweet that he knows exactly what he’s doing when he punches out a thought 280 characters in length. There’s no question he would regret the vicious and unfounded personal attacks directed at referees, but he most certainly is conscious that such an eventuality could play out once he hits the ‘Tweet’ button. Another such tweet in the future could not be dismissed with an ignorant shrug. If he repeats past transgressions he’d be doing so with the full knowledge of what that may bring.

This is why we, in the media, on social networks, in pubs and around the braai, can’t stop talking about Erasmus. He’s a blockbuster character. Equal parts pantomime villain and noble hero. Every dance posted online, every interview recorded, whatever he does, wherever he goes, he will command attention.

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