How Rassie hid his life-threatening illness during the World Cup

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How Rassie hid his life-threatening illness during the World Cup

There were no signs of a battle with physical upheaval, including chemo, only an obsessive pursuit of victory

Journalist
Rassie Erasmus and Jaques Nienaber, the new Springbok head coach, in January 2020.
Playing forward Rassie Erasmus and Jaques Nienaber, the new Springbok head coach, in January 2020.
Image: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

It was thought the sheer scope of his effort in securing a third Rugby World Cup title for the Springboks in 2019 could not be overstated.

Now it has emerged that Rassie Erasmus‚ the team’s then head coach and SA Rugby’s director of rugby‚ did so under the spectre of a potentially life-threatening condition.

It has been reported that Erasmus was diagnosed with microscopic polyangiitis with granulomatosis‚ a rare autoimmune disease, in early 2019.

Although the disease is not cancerous it can negatively affect vital organs including the kidneys and lungs‚ as well as the sinuses and trachea.

He kept mum about his condition and quietly went about his business plotting the Springboks’ path to World Cup glory.

There was nothing in the team’s build-up to the World Cup to suggest that Erasmus was operating under enormous physical strain.

Having beaten the All Blacks in Wellington the previous year‚ the Boks returned to the same venue in 2019 and earned a priceless draw en route to claiming their first Rugby Championship crown. They last won the forerunner to that competition, the Tri Nations‚ in 2009.

The Boks departed for the World Cup earlier than most teams as they had an engagement against Japan in Saitama 15 days before they were due to start their campaign against the All Blacks in Yokohama.

His vision remained unaltered‚ while displaying clarity of thought in challenging those around him to tune into the rarefied frequency at which a coaching high priest operates.

It meant that the team‚ if they reached the semifinals‚ would be away from home for 19 weeks, which would have put unimaginable strain on the coach.

However‚ by the week leading up their World Cup opener against the All Blacks there were no visible signs of the condition Erasmus was battling.

He was as jovial as ever.

He would crack a smile and genially go about his business when the cameras were rolling. When they weren’t‚ he would generously give of his time‚ over and above the prescribed slots in World Cup guidelines for coaches’ interactions with the media.

During those, Erasmus’s perennial‚ obsessive pursuit of the margins that could potentially give his team an advantage were all too apparent.

His vision remained unaltered‚ while displaying clarity of thought in challenging those around him to tune into the rarefied frequency at which a coaching high priest operates. There were no signs of a man battling physical upheaval or one who was trying to keep his wits about him.

He certainly didn’t look like someone who had been subjected to chemotherapy.

Whether it was devising strategies to master the slippery ball in the humid conditions early in the tournament‚ winning over the Japanese public‚ getting referee Jérome Garcès to view the Boks through more sympathetic eyes‚ or the audacious manner in which he placed his faith in the deployment of the team’s Bomb Squad‚ Erasmus unflinchingly remained at the top of his game.

Of course his condition will invite comparisons with former Springbok World Cup-winning coach Kitch Christie who succumbed to cancer in 1998.

After plotting the Boks’ path to glory in 1995, Christie took charge of Transvaal in Super Rugby the following year‚ while continuing his role as national coach. However‚ he became too ill to continue those commitments.

If there was anything nagging away at Erasmus in 2019‚ it didn’t manifest itself physically‚ but rather in that relentless quest to make the Boks the best.

His legend will now extend into new frontiers. He will be known as the man who didn’t just manage the Rugby World Cup-winning Bok team‚ but at the same time a rare and potentially deadly disease.