For all of South Africa’s physical prowess on the sports fields, there’s always been a feeling that the country suffers from a touch of naivety when the heat gets turned up. You only need to look at how the nation’s cricket team gets on during knock-out games at a World Cup to understand what is meant by that.
Indeed, South Africa has probably produced the most skilled cricketers of any generation but has very little to show for it. It’s not for a lack of talent, but rather that the men from the rainbow nation lack that winning mentality when the opposition raises the stakes.
This is undoubtedly why they are at 14/1 to win the 2021 T20 World Cup and most punters will tell you that, in their experience, when it comes to betting on sports, it’s best to give those odds a wide berth. Perhaps they’re simply wary of fighting fire with fire, but to critics and the oppositional sides, the placidity of the Proteas is akin to wilting in the heat of battle.
The irony is that this mindset couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the country’s rugby team. Indeed, the Springboks thrive on the biggest stage and have three World Cup trophies to prove that, with their latest triumph coming during 2019 in Japan.
A large part of that is down to the role that Rassie Erasmus has played in changing the mindset of the team. Yes, the Boks won the World Cup in 1994 and 2007 before Erasmus arrived, but the work that the 48-year-old is doing today will leave a lasting legacy on the country’s sporting psyche.
Indeed, for the first time, we are seeing a South African sports coach go out of his way to unsettle the opposition. This may sound like nothing out of the ordinary but South African culture is quite conservative with mind games normally frowned upon and seen as disrespectful. Historically, the onus has always been on letting actions speak louder than words.
Erasmus has thrown that dated approach into the bin and has shown over the last few years that there are no sacred cows with him. Tellingly, we’ve seen it during the build-up to the series with the British and Irish Lions when Erasmus accused Warren Gatland’s Lions of running scared after not agreeing to play two fixtures against the South African A side during their warm-up games. On the back of that, Erasmus took to Twitter to make a jibe about Owen Farrell’s tackling after Gatland called for consistency in refereeing.
In fact, it isn’t the first time that the Springboks’ director of rugby has made a point of critiquing Farrell’s tackling technique after humorously teaching his players to make neck-high tackles in training for the benefit of the onlooking journalists. This was done after the Englishman’s shoulder charge went unpunished during a Test against the Boks in 2018.
Rassie Erasmus teaching Esterhuizen, the bloke that got hit by Farrell the new tackle technique. Absolute Gold. pic.twitter.com/ptxAyAQmYh
— Jim Hamilton (@jimhamilton4) November 6, 2018
Make no mistake: this type of confrontational strategy is far from the norm in South African sports but at the same time, it’s also long overdue.
The truth is that the country will benefit a lot from Erasmus’s robust approach to criticism and his willingness to defend the Springboks at all costs. As long as it doesn’t cross the line, it should be considered healthy development and will ensure that the South African team doesn’t get bullied by the opposition in the future.
Perhaps we can draw a fitting conclusion by looking back on a famous song that was written during the mid-80s. Indeed, it was the satirical Spitting Image sketch that produced the song I’ve Never Met a Nice South African in 1986 but, ironically, for years after that, the teams from Africa’s southernmost tip showed themselves to be too nice when the going got tough.
Well, it may be time for a 21st century cover of that song because Erasmus has stopped the niceties and is building a fierce sporting culture never seen before in the country.