Taking a seat in the muggy canteen of South Africa Rugby Union’s headquarters, Rassie Erasmus leans back and wipes the sweat from his brow.
‘We’ve just had level-two load shedding,’ he explains, with his Afrikaans accent. ‘They cut off the electricity for a couple of hours and we lose the aircon. So apologies if it’s a bit warm!’
Tucked up in the Cape Town hillside like an eagle’s nest, the sun is beaming in through the panoramic windows to push the temperature even higher. With almost a bird’s eye view of the city, he explains how different neighbourhoods are plunged into darkness at times scheduled by the government.
‘This area might be off between 6 and 9. Then the electricity comes back on and another area goes off. You can physically see it. Those close to hospitals get special treatment. The people who can afford it have a generator, or solar panels. But there’s not enough electricity for irrigation so that’s a problem for farmers.’
It is one of the most contentious issues in South African life, high on the agenda of president Cyril Ramaphosa. And Erasmus, as we all know by now, knows a thing or two about politics.
Rassie Erasmus is keen to fix his damaged relationship with referees before the World Cup
The South Africa director of rugby has been banned twice for criticising referees publicly
After sipping on a cool bottle of water, the director of rugby begins to talk through his last few months. The most divisive figure in rugby, Erasmus received a second ban during the autumn internationals for publicly criticising referees on social media. Now he is back to work, with his fellow coaches sitting in the room next door, heads buried in laptop analysis.
‘Our programme is settled now. It’s lekker,’ he says, quick to bring up his efforts to sign retired Welsh referee Nigel Owens as a member of staff before the World Cup.
‘Everyone knows about Nigel. I actually just emailed him. From the outside, he said it’s a goer. From the inside, we’ll know next week.
‘The reason is straight forward. We could take one of our local refs but it would be another South African voice. People from the outside think the South African voice is attacking or arrogant. Even the way I talk, sometimes people think it’s aggressive. When you’ve known me a while you know it’s not aggressive.
‘We definitely want to change that view. Prior to those two incidents [Erasmus’s bans], we never had stuff like that. It will take hard work to change. Someone like Nigel might come in and say, “These guys are doing it right” or he might say, “Hey guys, you have to change a few things here”. It’s the way he communicates. It’s a real thing we’re trying to fix, not a smokescreen.
Former Welsh referee Nigel Owens (left) could be working with South Africa to improve the relationship
‘I don’t want to talk myself into a hole again here. We basically felt we have to repair this because obviously there’s not a great relationship. We want to reset that. It’s a genuine need for us to change.’
‘If we get our way, we will have him as soon as possible. We are very aligned in terms of the way world rugby’s going with safety, tackling, head contact. So it’s the perception of whether or not something’s OK when we send it to World Rugby. Maybe Nigel could talk to them for us. And then there’s his knowledge in reviews, previews, videos. We want someone to be a full-on management member. It would be great.’
On the television across the room, there is a replay of last month’s Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge University. Erasmus digresses. ‘We played against Cambridge on my first ever Springbok tour in the 1990s. I took 2,200 rand on a five-week tour and converted it into traveller’s cheques. The last week in Paris we went to Euro Disney and I remember being so hungry in that bloody place with no money left! We’d stayed in hostels and didn’t get free meals. It was amateur, take your own pocket money, buy a few beers. It was fun!’
He has been watching plenty of northern hemisphere rugby in recent weeks, studying the Six Nations as plans are fine-tuned for the World Cup.
Siya Kolisi lifted the trophy in 2019, completing one of the great underdog stories after Erasmus took over the team a year out from the competition. This time the Springboks are the defending champions. Does it feel different going in with a target on their backs?
Plans for the South Africa side are being fine-tuned ahead of the World Cup later this year
The Springboks lifted the trophy in 2019 but may be up against it this time around
‘Would you not say we’re going in as underdogs?’ he queries. ‘I’m with you, but with no emotions would you not say that France, Ireland and New Zealand are currently the favourites?
‘Realistically, yes, we see ourselves as going in to defend it, and we get a lot of confirmation out of that match against France and Ireland in November. Before that, and this is not an excuse, we went a little bit cold into that match. But Ireland and France are number one. And we know New Zealand if they played them today it would definitely be one point this way or that way. We also believe if we play against those guys it’ll be one point either way.’
Conversations turns to England. His sister lives in Reading, where she has worked as a social worker for the NHS. So his finger is never far from the pulse of what is going on.
Eddie Jones was sacked following the defeat by the Springboks at Twickenham in November. Erasmus watched the game from the team hotel in Teddington as part of his suspension, but he had no idea what was going to happens next.
Eddie Jones was sacked as England head coach after defeat to South Africa last year
Erasmus admits he’s surprised England sacked Jones, who was replaced by Steve Borthwick, after the loss
‘Our last game was against Eddie’s England and our next game is against Eddie’s Australia! I can’t say why England made that change. I didn’t see it coming. We beat England in the tour but I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know he was so under the pump. I didn’t read the newspapers there so much. I was trying to get myself out of the newspapers! I was more concerned about the Springboks and trying to get them to win. I didn’t know he was so close to getting fired.
He adds: ‘I watched that game on a big screen in the team room, rather than in my hotel room. It was the second time so I was a bit more ready for it! A couple of the hotel staff sat in and watched it with me. It’s never lekker. I know it’s not a good look for me, the Springboks, or World Rugby. It’s not nice.’
On Steve Borthwick, Erasmus draws parallels with his own rebuilding job in 2018. Both coaches were tasked with a quick fix, although the Englishman has even less time to change things, after the RFU sacked Jones as late as December last year.
‘Things can definitely turn around quickly. Borthwick is English, and knows the English mentality. If someone else comes in, it takes them a while to understand that. I listened to his first squad announcement and the English people enjoy that mannerism and history. Certainly when I listened to him, I thought there is some serious stuff coming.
Erasmus likened Borthwick’s rebuilding job at England to that he had with South Africa in 2018
‘If someone else took over South Africa 18 months from the World Cup, it would take them time to understand the culture. For myself it was easy. I knew the system, knew the culture. I’d been in it since 1994 as a player, I have always been in it. Borthwick is more or less the same with England. If there’s somebody who can do that turnaround quickly, it is someone who is English. I not saying they’re going to win it but why can’t they do it?’
Over the course of an hour, as the temperature in the room gradually cools, Erasmus discusses everything on rugby’s agenda.
Freddie Steward’s red card against Ireland? ‘If I give you my opinion… that’s why we need someone like Nigel!’
Scotland? ‘Tough. Hell, I think there’s four or five South African guys in there!’
Wales? ‘A little bit off the pace but they can turn it around.’
His comments about South Africa joining the Six Nations? ‘When some people see the headline they say “Never, ever in our life”. I want to stay realistic. We have the opportunity for our clubs to play in EPCR and the URC. If the Six Nations didn’t happen, my personal preference would be to play the Rugby Championship in the February block.’
Erasmus made it clear he wants to take on another challenge around the world before he retires
Whether or not Erasmus will be with the Springboks long enough to see those changes first hand is another matter. He remains in contract but makes no secret of his ambitions to take on another challenge around the world before he retires.
‘I always believe that CEOs and coaches don’t fire coaches. Fans fire coaches, and the media feels what the fans are thinking and put pressure on. I’m very open that if it doesn’t go as well as it should the fans might want somebody else. If it goes like that, I understand, but if it goes lekker then that’s great.
‘I would like to have another go somewhere. I’m 50. I think I’ve got another stint in me. If it’s here in South Africa, then great, fantastic, but I also understand it has to come to an end somewhere.’
In the meantime, it is full steam towards France 2023. Erasmus is already plotting. He has been plotting for the last four years. As the interview rounds off and heads towards his next meeting, he pauses to think about his final answer. Will he be deleting Twitter at the World Cup? ‘Errr… let’s open it up when everyone is nice and calm about everything,’ he says. ‘I’ll keep quiet, my mum is on my case!’
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