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Rassie's narrative arc is turning us off

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus before the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Twitter is a hellscape as far as public discourse is concerned. But it has also been a thermometer for gauging public sentiment. Last week the temperature emanating from Springboks fans towards Rassie Erasmus became rather frosty.

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South Africa’s director of rugby, who has over 107 thousand followers on Twitter but follows no one, tweeted the day after the Springboks’ 19-16 loss to Ireland in Dublin:

“Tough test match, thanks for all the support from, also thanks to the Ireland supporters at the Aviva, you definetly [sic] understand the game and it’s great to play in an atmosphere like yesterday! Surely was a game of big battles, but small margins.”

No harm, right? But the accompanying video of Ireland’s second try, scored by Mack Hansen in the left corner, suggested that Erasmus wasn’t playing nice.

Just after the ball was turned over on the opposite touchline, there is the hint of a possible forward pass. OK, let’s be frank. Andrew Porter certainly shifted the ball forward to Finlay Bealham who then shovelled it on to ignite a slick move.

Erasmus watched the try in real-time from the coach’s box at the Aviva Stadium. It was his first game back after serving a ban for releasing an hour-long video criticising referee Nic Berry during the British and Irish Lions tour last year.

An equivalent would be a bank robber holding up an off-licence the day after he’s released from prison.

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Erasmus has earned his cult following. His disciples have cast him as a messianic figure who boldly stands up to the real bullies of the global game. In their minds South Africa has been stepped on and sidelined by the elites in Europe and the snobs in Australasia and it’s high time someone fought back.

Just this week French financial prosecutors raided the headquarters of the 2023 World Cup organising committee, suggesting that France’s successful bid was marred by “favouritism, influence peddling [and] corruption”. This will only entrench the conspiracy that the world is indeed against the Springboks given South Africa was betrayed in their campaign to host the tournament for the first time since 1995.

Be that as it may, Erasmus’ antics still smack of a man who can’t read the room. Whatever your views on a referee’s performance or the social importance of a Lions series, Erasmus’s sanction and fine – SA Rugby was forced to pay £20,000 – was deserving. This latest jab might not be as scandalous as his previous misdemeanor, but it enhances the perception that Erasmus considers himself above the law.

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Moreover, this whinging on social media is incongruous with the message that Erasmus has espoused for four years. “Let’s fuck them up physically” seems to be the mantra that underlines his entire rugby ethos. He might be a brandy and coke-swilling, barefoot dancing, flag waving eccentric, but first and foremost he presents as an alpha of the game, leading a pack of alphas that can stampede over all opponents by virtue of their might and muscle.

This perpetual referee bashing can only be interpreted as weakness and insecurity. This isn’t the behaviour of a conqueror but of someone desperate for a scapegoat. South Africa didn’t lose the first Test to the Lions last year because of the referee. Same as they didn’t lose to Ireland because of the referee. Any suggestion that they did is a betrayal of the senses.

It was only three years ago that Erasmus was one of rugby’s most beloved figures. His decision to select Siya Kolisi as captain in 2018 was inspired and still resonates beyond the pitch. His transformation of the Springboks from chumps to champs in 18 months will go down as one of the greatest rebuilds in the sport’s history.

The sight of him sobbing on the Chasing the Sun documentary as he recounted the struggles of Makazole Mapimpi was deeply moving. It was impossible not to watch this burly man weep and keep your own eyes dry. Erasmus had morphed into the uncle you wished you had. Forget picking his brain to better understand his philosophies. All I wanted to do was give him a big hug.

Then the pandemic bit and the Springboks were indeed sidelined. South Africa had a harsher lockdown than most of the world’s rugby playing nations and an already teetering economy was put under immense strain. We all came out of that period a little jaded, even those of us who no longer live in the country. If you have roots on Africa’s southern edge you’ll know this to be true.

Perhaps this altered Erasmus in some way. Maybe he was always going to launch a tirade of some sort that would land him in hot water with the authorities. Whether it was preordained or the consequence of the world falling apart, Erasmus’ narrative arc has veered off course.

He has a chance to put it right. A documentary chronicling his life will be released this Sunday on SuperSport in South Africa. Erasmus tweeted twice to promote it. The first said, “I suggest flawless people give it a skip”, while the second addressed “all the ‘normal’ people”.

Is he being sanctimonious? It does feel like he is. Is he intimating that he’s not “normal” in the way misunderstood artists and musicians might self-identity as abnormal? Is he judging the rest of us for being judgmental? Is this attempt to unlock the mysteries that lie between his ears akin to untangling the Gordian Knot?

The trailer for the documentary, simply called, Rassie: The Official Film, ends with the respected journalist, Simnikiwe Xabanisa, stating, “What a coach”. That he is. Maybe the best ever produced in South Africa. Maybe the best ever anywhere in the world. That is a debate for another time but enough people will agree with that statement to warrant the discussion.

It would be a shame if he continues down this path. He’s already lost the neutrals, now he’s starting to lose some devotees. Let’s hope he shelves the moaning and goading and wins back our love.

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