It's quite the turnaround, and Rassie Erasmus has been instrumental to it. The South Africa coach has restored pride in the Boks jersey and driven home to his players what it means to play for your country. Then came the more tactical changes, getting the team to play the Springbok way — physical, straightforward, focusing on the set piece.
All that was on display in the Boks' 19-16 win over Wales in the World Cup semifinals on Sunday. "I think there were players in South Africa who just saw rugby as good pay check," Erasmus said, describing his journey since becoming South Africa coach in February 2018. "Now players realize if they want to be a professional rugby player you have to work very hard and it's not just about going from province to province and getting a pay check."
Erasmus said his Springbok players had "taken responsibility and ownership of what it means to be a professional rugby player." His captain agreed. "He made it clear that the Springbok is the most important thing," said Siya Kolisi, the player Erasmus appointed as South Africa's first black rugby captain. "In the past, most of us tried to build ourselves by our social media and he just brought us back to earth, and told us you have to play well and everything else will come.
"To see it come together and hopefully go all the way ... I'm really looking forward to the final." In those bleak days at the start of this World Cup cycle under Allister Coetzee, the Springboks had a first ever loss to Italy, a 57-0 mauling by the All Blacks in New Zealand for South Africa's worst defeat ever, and then a record loss to Ireland in late 2017.
Coetzee was replaced after just 11 wins in 25 games in charge. It took time for Erasmus' methods to take hold, but the Boks have lost just once in 2019 — to New Zealand in the pool stage of the World Cup.
England will likely start as favorite in the final in Yokohama on Saturday after wins over Australia and the All Blacks in the knockout stage, but South Africa is the reigning Rugby Championship titleholder and is wedded to a successful game plan.
"I'm not 100% sure the World Cup final is going to be won by a very expansive game plan and wonderful tries," Erasmus said. "We will go and grind it out." Erasmus has a policy of wearing a different shirt for the next match after a loss, so he was changing clothes quite a lot in 2018.
Not so much this year, though, and he has become synonymous with wearing the same white shirt during the Springboks' run to the World Cup final. It will clash with the white of England at the weekend, but Erasmus won't be swapping it.
"I will wear this in the final," he said, laughing. "This is my lucky shirt."
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80