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'The Springboks are more important': How Rassie Erasmus convinced South Africa squad to put heart and soul into World Cup campaign

 

South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa was present to join in the World Cup celebrations (PA)
South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa was present to join in the World Cup celebrations (PA)
Ultimate joy: Siya Kolisi celebrates South Africa’s World Cup triumph, which was masterminded by head coach Rassie Erasmus
Rassie Erasmus
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Sat with a World Cup winner's medal around his neck and the gleaming Webb Ellis trophy in front of him, Siya Kolisi told a story of how head coach Rassie Erasmus began his opening address to the Springbok squad he had just taken over at the end of 2017.

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There are similar tales of him offering an expletive-laden laying down of the law when taking over at Munster and in his captain's mind it was the first step on the journey to their utterly dominant display over England on Saturday and the winning of a third World Cup.

"The first meeting we had was in Johannesburg and it was just straightforward and he told us exactly what we were doing as players," said Kolisi of the man who gave him his first pro contract at the Stormers 10 years ago. "A lot of us were getting quite a lot of money and doing all the things off the field full steam but we didn't make rugby the main thing.

"He told us straight that it had to change. The shift had to come. Rugby is more important and the Springboks are more important than our personal goals because there are so many people who spent their last salary to come and watch us play, and they want to see us give our best on and off the field, and that was the change of mindset.

"We started working hard and we stopped doing so much social media. We had to make sure that we put heart and soul into it on and off the field. I think the most important thing that he brought in was honesty. He was always honest with all of us and he told no one else, just us as a team.

"It was really amazing because you always knew where you stood, and we knew where the other stood. So it was really special and we are really grateful that it did work this way because it was tough at the beginning."

Having restored such values off the field, it is perhaps no surprise that on it the World Cup was won with a similar approach of stripping everything back and returning to what they do best. Their physical superiority over England in a 32-12 victory was a sight to behold, perhaps the most dominant we've seen in a World Cup final.

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The scrum was monstrous, the breakdown a battle and at one point, over the din of 70,000 voices, you'd swear you could hear the impact of a Pieter-Steph du Toit tackle.

But if it's Erasmus who reminded the team what it means to be a Springbok, it's Kolisi who speaks volumes on what it is to be South African.

"We speak a lot about one another's stories and where we come from," said Erasmus of his skipper's upbringing in the township of Zwide. "I think that people get used to these stories and I suppose even you guys as the media might not be shocked by what we tell you anymore.

"But if you stop to think about it, Siya didn't have enough money for shoes. He would go days without eating.

"This man who is sitting in front of you holding the World Cup, this is a massive achievement and it sums up what kind of guy Siya is."

It's Kolisi and other such triumphs against seemingly insurmountable odds that see these world champions resonate so widely.

Twenty-four years on from talk of the Rainbow Nation and the winning of their first post-apartheid World Cup, this was the most diverse team of Springboks ever assembled, one to give hope to millions in a country where economic inequality remains stark and vast.

"We started talking about what pressure is," continued Erasmus. "In South Africa, it (pressure) is not having a job. Pressure is having a close relative who is murdered.

"In South Africa there is a lot of problems that create pressure. Rugby should not be something that creates pressure, rugby should create hope.

"We started talking about rugby being a privilege, not a burden.

"Hope is not talking about hope. It's not saying you've got hope, tweeting a beautiful tweet, things like that.

"Hope is when you play well and people watch the game on a Saturday and have a nice braai (barbecue) going.

"They have a nice barbecue, watch the game and feel good afterwards no matter of political or religious difference. For those 80 minutes, you agree when you usually disagree.

"We started believing in that and saying that is not our responsibility, that is our privilege to try and fix those things.

"The moment you see it that way it becomes a hell of a privilege and that was the way we tackled the whole World Cup campaign."

For those in Yokohama, and the millions all over South Africa, watching on felt quite the privilege too.

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