The gong sounded and Herchel Jantjies placed his hands on the ball, gave a quick glance and pinged it to Handre Pollard to boot out. A moment South Africans will never forget, we were going to lift the Webb Ellis trophy once more, a record-equaling third time tied with our fiercest rivals New Zealand.
So how exactly did we climb a mountain that 18 months ago seemed beyond our capabilities? It started when Rassie Erasmus took over Allister Coetzee in March 2018. His first match in charge was against Wales in Washington DC, in which he gave thirteen players their first test cap. It was a narrow 22-20 defeat but from there it was a journey heading straight to the top.
Erasmus was prepared to scuffle the old structures set in place by his predecessors – outdated and fragile blueprints that crippled a team that had the potential to go toe-to-toe with anyone in World Rugby but just couldn’t. Erasmus manifested a whole new philosophy that would ultimately take us back to the summit of World Rugby. His new style of play, fusing power with speed was an indication of what was to come. England was the experiment job that proved successful and would lay the foundation for something special, the appointment of our first-ever black captain part of the masonry. A comprehensive victory over the Red Roses was the shift in the paradigm, and a spark to a fire that would burn on the biggest stage of them all.
Que the 2019 Rugby Championship, the Springboks were totally a different team. The team was playing with a certain swagger that was missing since the days of Kitch Christie and Jake White. Suddenly a team that looked like it was on the brink of vaporizing into thin air, was rejuvenated and signalling ominous signs. Maybe it was a case of be careful what you wish for to then New Zealand coach Steve Hansen who before the Championship started said: “rugby needs a strong Springbok team.”
Spearheaded by the likes of Kolisi, Marx, and Etzebeth the Springboks proved to be a force to be reckoned with, playing a brand of rugby that only Erasmus can pioneer. Springbok teams are renowned for their gutsiness and ruthlessness but this time it was different, they had taken it to another level. Erasmus created the perfect team, investing time in the likes of Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am who at the time were maybe good enough to play against an Italy or Georgia side. The shenanigans of Aphiwe Dyantyi proved to be a blessing in disguise as Mapimpi would go on to become one of the best finishers in modern rugby together with mercurial winger Cheslin Kolbe.
I can’t imagine the Boks playing a test match without Lukhanyo Am who in many respects has become an integral part of the defence structure that we so heavily rely on. Erasmus’ right arm man Jacques Nienaber who is responsible for the defence operation turned Am into a defence general alongside marauder and 2019 Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit. (Donald Trump maybe needs to consult with Nienaber on that wall situation)
Essentially what it boils down to is that Erasmus knew what he wanted and crafted the players he knew could do the job. A lot of players copped a lot of flack, the likes of Willie le Roux, Damian de Allende, Mapimpi, etc but he saw the bigger picture and finally after a gold medal and a Webb Ellis trophy we see it too. Have a clear vision and stick to your guns is the key lesson, his predecessors were quick to drop players upon public outcry but he did what he believed would work.
South Africa is in desperate need of minds like Erasmus to sustain what we have accomplished this year, and maybe him stepping into the directors’ role is another step towards greatness and taking our rugby to unprecedented heights.
Only time will tell, but there’s a lot to be excited about.