Unmasking the hidden side and demons of maverick Springbok innovator Rassie Erasmus – David O’Sullivan

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has been described as charismatic and smart. However, when he upsets the status quo and pushes the boundaries of what the rugby-loving world deems to be fair, he is accused of abandoning grace and dignity. When he questioned the decisions of referees in a video rant that went viral, which he said he made for consumption by his inner circle, rugby authorities did not believe his version and he was slapped with a ban. The confident rugby coach on the international stage who is not afraid to stir controversy is not the Rassie that broadcaster and author David O’Sullivan encountered during their many meetings to write Rassie’s biography, “Rassie: Stories of Life and Rugby.” In an interview with BizNews, O’Sullivan said that instead of the charismatic, loud, devil-may-care Rassie he expected, he encountered a very, very shy Erasmus who is not keen on public interactions and did not believe he had a story to tell. O’Sullivan says he would like Rassie’s critics to read the book to understand that the way Erasmus did things was maverick and different, but it wasn’t cheating. The traffic light system, which caused another stir after the 2023 World Cup Rugby match between South Africa and Scotland in Marseille, he said was nothing new and had been used by Erasmus during Currie Cup matches. O’Sullivan said he hoped that Rassie’s legacy will be that he brought about effective transformation in South African Rugby.Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:09 – Introductions
  • 00:34 – David O’ Sullivan on how he came to write Rassie’s story
  • 02:45 – On how he was able to write in Rassie’s voice
  • 05:05 – On the timeline and how long it took to write the book
  • 07:44 – What Rassie is like as a person
  • 12:41 – His wild drinking days
  • 14:07 – His battles with injury
  • 17:08 – Why Rassie wants to tell his story now
  • 19:23 – The controversy surrounding Rassie
  • 22:10 – The things that surprised him about Rassie
  • 25:20 – On how he thinks the book will be received overseas
  • 27:40 – Predictions for the 2023 Rugby World Cup
  • 28:48 – How history will judge Rassie
  • 31:03 – The decision to make Siya Kolisi captain
  • 33:30 – Conclusions

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Excerpts from the Interview

Rassie believed he did not have a story to tell 

I had been courting and flirting with the publisher Pan Macmillan for some time, discussing various ideas for projects. Then, this opportunity came about when Macmillan had been in discussions with Rassie for about a year, trying to nail him down. Rassie had this belief that he didn’t have a story to tell and that he was not a book person. So it didn’t really register on his radar. When I met him, he said to me, ‘I’ve only ever read one book in my life, and that was Lord of the Flies at school.’ By then, the deal was done, and I told Rassie that he was now going to have to read a second book, which is his own book. He’s now read it three times. So I joked with him and said, ‘You have now read four books in total.’ 

My name was submitted to Rassie, and Rassie is a guy who hyperfocuses on rugby to the exclusion of almost all else. He knew me from my career as a journalist and what I had done in the past. Interestingly, Rassie didn’t want a rugby writer. He felt that rugby writers were probably too close to the action. He wanted a bit more of a dispassionate, detached view. So I got the gig, and it took only a split second when Pan Macmillan phoned and said, ‘Would you be interested in writing this book?’ for me to decide that this is a project I want to do

A shy, introverted man, not what I expected.

I realised I was expecting this flamboyant, extroverted, charismatic, devil-may-care, friends with the universe type of person. I noticed that he wanted to be away, excluded away from people and I thought it’s maybe because he doesn’t want people constantly coming up to him and him having to respond. But, as I got to know him,  I realised that it is actually his nature. He is a very, very shy man and he has this amazing ability to mask his shyness through a semblance of being an extrovert. What Rassi would prefer to do  is not really engage with many people and just have his computer and his videos and his analysis. That’s where he’s at home, analysing rugby and being involved in strategising about rugby.

Rassie is a very introverted person. He doesn’t like social environments. He’s not that comfortable in them, and he prefers to be very much on his own with his computer analysing rugby. If he’s going to have discussions with anybody, it’s about rugby. He doesn’t chit-chat. He doesn’t do small talk, and he doesn’t engage in much conversation outside of his field of expertise and what he’s focusing on. It’s not rudeness; if anything, it’s just his personality, and I realised that quite quickly. He hyper-focuses on the things that are important to him at that time. So, when we were working on the book, all his attention was on the book, and he was telling the stories about his life that were relevant for the book. I would, on occasion, grill him, extracting minute details out of him, to the extent that I needed to know what the weather was like that day, just because it gives you, the reader, a sense of things. These minute details sometimes have a big impact, and we never met in public places because he’s not comfortable in those places. 

He would come and meet me if I was down in Stellenbosch, where he was doing training camps, and I would stay at a hotel there. He would sometimes meet me for breakfast, and I could see it wasn’t something he liked doing. In the end, we didn’t do that; we’d meet at his office at SARU House where he was comfortable, and the people around him made him comfortable. Then we could chat endlessly. So, I expected a loud charismatic man, and I found a shy, introverted man, and he’s a much nicer man for it.

Rassie Erasmus and David O’ Sullivan

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South Africans love Rassie, he accepts their attention awkwardly but with generosity

There was one occasion where he and I, it was the one and only time where we worked together, that he said, ‘Let’s go and have some lunch.’ We met in a restaurant, and he was, typically, I didn’t realise it at the time, he was away in a corner and sitting with his back to everybody, and nobody was noticing him. A young kid had walked past and had seen him and then come into the restaurant, and I could see this youngster, he must have been about 15 or 16 years old, standing at the side, and he was plucking up the courage to come over. So, I said to Rassie, ‘Oh, there’s a fan over there,’ and he turned, and he saw this young boy and he beckoned him over. This youngster was shaking; he was so emotional. He was shaking and so excited, and he didn’t come and say, ‘Let me take a selfie, and can I get your autograph?’ He just came over and he said, ‘Ek wil net vir oom se hand skud,’ I just want to shake your hand, and Rassie said, ‘Ja, kom sit,’ and the two of them had a little conversation. ‘What school are you at?’ Then this youngster left and was just so happy. I think he was almost in tears. I then realised we hadn’t taken a photograph, and he was going to go home and say, ‘Ma, pa, you won’t believe who I met… Rassie Erasmus.’ ‘Yes, of course you did.’ So, we called him back and said, ‘Let’s get a photograph.’ 

There was a woman; we were walking down the road in Stellenbosch. We went to go buy some batteries, and the lovely, garrulous Coloured woman came over and said, ‘Ek gee jou ‘n drukkie,’ she came and she just powered into him and gave him a big hug, and he was saying, ‘Dankie, dankie, dankie,’ and moved on. Awkwardly, but with generosity.

Source: GCIS

Rassie’s wild party days, “Die liggies het my gevang”

So, he definitely was that [a party animal], and I can’t rationalise it, but it’s true. It does seem at odds that it could be that he was masking his insecurities at the time. Who knows? But, yes, he did go through a phase when he came up and played for the Cats, as the team was called, and he did have quite a problematic time with the partying. He led a life of partying, of excess, and he makes no bones about it. He understood that it had a detrimental effect on him as a person and that he needed to get out. His expression is, ‘Die liggies het my gevang.’ The lights got to me, and he eventually said to the coach, ‘I need to go back to the Free State,’ to this smaller world where he could actually cope with life a lot better than he was coping with life in Johannesburg. He took an enormous cut in salary. The profile wasn’t the same. He was battling with injury, but he knew that if he continued in this wild way, he was going on a path of destruction

Rassie’s battle with injuries and his struggle with Wegner’s disease 

I think [his injuries as a rugby player] are extreme. It’s the oddest thing to have that many injuries, but he has been dreadfully unlucky. One of his main injuries that really brought about the end of his career was a foot injury, which he suffered in a routine training exercise. It was the start of the season, he had left the CATS, he joined Free State, and it was at a pre-season warm-up session, he said. The guy fell in front of him, he jumped over him, landed awkwardly and had a foot fracture that went undiagnosed for an incredibly long time. So, he was living on painkillers. He and his mentor, Frankie Erasmus, no relation, flew out to Adidas where he was examined. They made special shoes for him, and eventually when they came back to South Africa after a while of nothing getting better and playing in pain or playing with painkillers, that masked the problem and didn’t solve the problem. He then saw a surgeon who saw this hairline fracture. Rassie had the surgery and it was fixed, but the damage had been done and his body had gone through the rack and rib. His hands are incredible. Rassie’s got arthritis now in his fingers and can’t hold a golf club properly because of it. But, he is so resilient, and it does speak about a person who can overcome enormous obstacles and his physical pain being the obstacle to do the thing that he loves.

Wegner’s disease is something he’s got. It’s a chronic illness, and he is going to live with it all his life. It’s inflammation of the blood vessels in whatever part of the body Wegner’s disease gets you. For Rassie, unfortunately, it’s in his throat. So, his throat will start constricting, and he will battle with breathing. In the seventies, when the understanding of treatment for Wegner’s disease wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now, Wegner’s disease had quite a high mortality rate. So, he’s on a course of medication which solved the problem, but it’s a course of medication he will remain on for the rest of his life. Sometimes the cortisone that he has to take puffs him up, and he has to pee a lot. He’s embarrassed about it, but he’s learned to live with it. He’s very open about that so that people don’t get embarrassed for him.

Embarrassment is a big thing for Rassie. He needs to avoid embarrassment. He needs to avoid embarrassing people, and it has motivated so much of what he has done in his career. This notion of embarrassment. Transformation has come about because of embarrassment and humiliation for those who are at the receiving end of the unfairness of transformation or the lack thereof. It’s an interesting dynamic

Read More: How the Boks can tackle the burden of expectation and bring light to the nation – Dr Greyling Viljoen

Rassie’s lights during South Africa-Scotland match are nothing new

In the game against Scotland, the opening game for South Africa in the World Cup, you could see Rassie and Felix Jones, his assistant coach, holding up coloured lights. I’m amused to see that this is causing a bit of an uproar on social media. However, if you read the book, you’ll find that using coloured lights is nothing unusual for Rassie. He coached Free State to great success and took them to two Currie Cup victories using that exact system. He told me when we were writing the book that he was going to use the lights but asked me not to put it in the book because he wanted it to be a surprise. But for anyone wondering, ‘What on earth are the lights?’ There’s a section in the book that explains the lights.

I don’t think he anticipates that it would be a controversy simply because there’s no sanction against it. There’s nothing that he’s working against, in the same way when he was the director of rugby during the British and Irish Lions tour and he became the waterboy. No law said the director of rugby can’t be a waterboy. The law said the coach couldn’t be the waterboy. They’ve now amended that law and made it so that the director of rugby is also ineligible to carry the water. So, they made it specifically to stop Rassie from exploiting their own lack of procedure. I wouldn’t be surprised if suddenly they start saying, ‘Oh, you can’t use the coloured lights,’ but they use radios, walkie-talkies, and hand gestures. All of these things are used. It’s so amusing for me to see on social media that people had no idea that coaches were communicating with players during a game. What did you think was going on? Why do you think they were using microphones and wearing headsets? It’s all about communication, and this is a much easier way. As Jacques Nienaber said at the news conference, in these stadiums, there’s so much noise you sometimes can’t get a message to the players. So, just use a light. Simple as that.

Source: GCIS

Always thinking outside of the box 

Rassie’s got this very simple philosophy that if you need to do something differently, if you want something to happen differently, you’ve got to do something differently. He is always able to think outside of the box. But he’s always amazed; he doesn’t see it as out-of-the-box thinking. His way of rationalising or trying to explain it is, ‘Why hasn’t anybody else thought of it? It’s pretty obvious that you should be able to do these things.’ So, for him, it’s no big deal that he happens to be the first one to think of these things each time. The same was true when he was analysing play, using VHS machines and analysing the opposition. Nobody else was doing it. Certainly, no players were doing it, but Rassie was doing it. He said, ‘Why wasn’t anybody else doing it?’ It wasn’t as if they didn’t have the skills or the expertise or there was a rule against it, but he was the first. He’s been the first to do all of these things that have now become just common calls.

Rassie’s ‘therapy’ and his visions that became true  

There was one particular part that did surprise me. The alcoholic father, the depths to which we went into that was quite surprising and deeply emotional. I did hear Rassie when we were doing a roll of media interviews. He was chatting with a journalist, and I heard him say that the process of writing this book had felt like therapy. I thought, ‘Ja, that particular section was quite a lot like therapy as we just kept delving into what it meant, how he felt, how he dealt with the alcoholic father.’ Here’s the bit that really did surprise me when we came to talking about the British Irish Lions tour. In the third test, which was the deciding test match, they’d won the first one, South Africa had won the second one. The third and final one was the decider. Who wins the series? He picked Morné Steyn, an ageing Springbok who 12 years earlier had kicked a winning penalty which secured the Lions series in that year. He has been out of international rugby for five years. He had been playing for the Bulls with great skill and prominence, and Rassie brought him back into the fold and in the end, he picked him for the third test. He hadn’t been picked for the first two, picked him on the bench for the third test and on he came on the dying minutes and repeated the heroics of 12 years earlier, kicking a penalty which won South Africa the series. A remarkable story.

I said, why did you do that? He said, ‘Because I saw it.’ So I said, ‘Oh, you had a hunch.’ He said, ‘No, I saw it.’ I couldn’t understand it. This surprised me that he had these visions. I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. I don’t believe visions occur, and he said, ‘Let’s leave it out because people will think I’m mad.’ But, I couldn’t let go of a story as wonderful as that, and I said, ‘No, we’ve got to, we’ve got to dig into this. We need a way to talk about it.’ He said, ‘I know what to do. Let’s get Jacques in.’ So, we were at SARU House, his office, and he’d just got on the phone and said, ‘Jacques can you just pop up here?’ Jacques Nienaber came in, and Rassie said, ‘David, ask him the question.’ I said, ‘Why did you pick Morné Steyn?’ Jacques burst out laughing. He said, ‘Oh, it’s the visions.’ Then told me three stories about Rassie having visions, seeing things that will happen that then happened. But Jacques said, ‘Please understand, I’m a man of science. I can’t explain this, and nobody can explain it, but he has these visions. He sees things. He has premonitions of things happening, then they do happen.’ Now, I don’t believe in premonitions, but I can’t explain this. I think it’s a wonderful story, and we stuck it in the book

Source: GCIS

Deep, deep regret about the viral video

Rassie’s concern is that after he made the video that criticised Australian referee Nic Berry, after he was the waterboy, and after he got the bans, he found himself quite isolated and maligned. His sister, who lives in Reading, in the U.K., has lived there for 20 years, felt that her family was the only family in the whole of the UK who loved Rassie. Everybody else hated him. I see on social media that people would refer to him as a cheat when, in fact, he has never actually cheated. He brought the game into disrepute through the Erasmus video, and he is deeply, deeply regretful about it. I anticipate that people don’t like to have their minds changed, and unless they read the book, they will continue on the path of ‘We hate this guy and we’re not going to buy the book.’ I would like the detractors to read the book and possibly see another version of events and understand that the way he did things was maverick and different but wasn’t cheating, and possibly their minds can be changed.

How history will judge Rassie

I hope that history will judge Rassie as the man who brought about effective transformation in South Africa. He’s not a political beast, and he isn’t guided by political masters, as so many people accuse him. He is guided by a deep sense of humanity and a desire to avoid humiliation and embarrassment. As a result of that, he embarked on a transformation program that has been so effective. We saw the youngsters on the field against Scotland in the World Cup and against England in 2019. The players who came through that development program called the Elite Players Development Pathway (EPD) with such great success, that is his legacy.

My great fear is that when Rassie leaves, the attention on the EPD will fall away, and the program will dissolve. This wonderful network of coaches, scouts, and people dedicated to the well-being of rugby will fracture and fall apart. This is the path that is finding the kids who otherwise wouldn’t get opportunities, giving them the chances they need. It’s allowing the kids to go to elite schools and receive all the opportunities to still have relevance in rugby. Nobody is excluded. The only thing you’re excluded from is the number of players who can play for a team. There are 23, and if you’re not good enough to be in the 23, it’s not due to some kind of political discrimination. It’s because there was somebody who was better than you, and if that’s the only criteria, that’s the one we want.

Nobody is now discriminated against because they are white and can’t play because of quotas or black and can’t play because they’ve never had the opportunities. All of that is being levelled, so everybody can compete on an equal footing. That, for me, is the genius of Rassie Erasmus.

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Rassie is not a political animal, why he chose Siya Kolisi as captain

I’ll tell you exactly how that came about. He sat down and he picked his team. He admired Siya Kolisi since Siya was 17 years old. He knew exactly what this guy was capable of doing, and he knew that in that position at flank, he was the right player for that position. He picked his team to play England in 2018. Siya was in the team. Siya had been selected by Alistair Coetsee before him, but Rassie had worked with Siya at the Western Province Academy and had even made sure that he signed for Western Province after having found that Siya had signed for Free State but they found a flaw in the contract. He managed to get him out of it and brought him back.

Source: GCIS

But now he’s got to pick a captain. So, he looks at his list. He’s got his 23 and he goes, who’s the previous captain, Eben Etzebeth, he’s injured. Who else has captained the Springboks? Warren Whiteley is injured. Duane Vermeulen, he could be a candidate for captaincy, but he’s playing in France. The players don’t know him as well. He wanted somebody who was playing in South Africa and who’d been a captain but is somebody who could have access to the referee. He wants the person to be able to talk to the referee and hear the referee. So, he’s got to be either a prop, a lock, a loose forward, or a scrum half. So, he looks at his list and goes, ‘Who meets all of those criteria?’ Siya captained the Stormers. He’s a flanker. He’s going to be near the referee. I’ll make sure Siya is the captain. Never once did he think, ‘I was picking the first black captain.’ That came as a huge surprise.

Now, the problem is that some people don’t want to believe this. If you want to believe that Rassie is a political animal, you’ll say rubbish. But these are the facts. That’s actually what happened, and if you go to see Siya Kolisi and ask him or even read his book, you’ll find it’s the same version of events. I know that the conspiracy theorists say they colluded on it. That’s also nonsense. The simpler explanation is the correct one. Rassie did not know what he was doing in picking Siya as his first black captain. He just knew he was picking the right person to be the captain.

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