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Rugby World Cup final win would mean so much to South Africa, says coach Rassie Erasmus

Wearing a No. 6 Springboks shirt, South Africa’s new democratically-elected president Nelson Mandela handed over the Web Ellis Cup to captain Francois Pienaar.

The trophy presentation after South Africa’s victory in the Rugby World Cup final on home soil, little more than a year after the end of apartheid, became one of the most iconic moments in not only the country’s sporting history, but in the history of sport.

That was followed 12 years later by another World Cup final win and the image of captain John Smit joining hands with Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor, as the trophy was held aloft once again in Paris.

Now, the current crop of Springboks has its own date with destiny against England on Saturday, but head coach Rassie Erasmus knows this team’s legacy won’t be made or broken by the result.

In 2018 — the year Erasmus moved from director of rugby into his new role as head coach — South African rugby was at one of its lowest ebbs, after the Springboks dropped to an all-time low of seventh in the world.

READ: 80 minutes from glory — Can South Africa upset favorite England?

READ: South Africa edges past Wales to reach third Rugby World Cup final

Few would have predicted that just a year later, the team would be 80 minutes away from being crowned world champion for a record-equaling third time.

One of the catalysts to the stunning turnaround has been the historic appointment of Siya Kolisi as the Springboks’ first ever black captain, one of Erasmus’ first major changes after becoming head coach.

“If we are — not fortunate — but if it’s destiny and we play well and we win the match, even if we don’t we are still a very representative team with a black captain,” Erasmus tells CNN.

“As my role as director of rugby, I’m so determined to kick this on. That’s what happened more or less in 1995, but then it didn’t kick on. And in 2007 it happened but then it didn’t kick on.”

READ: Siya Kolisi — shock defeat by Japan ‘has been with us for four years’

READ: Siya Kolisi — ‘There’s no way I would’ve dreamed of being Springbok captain’

Erasmus added that a potential South Africa victory in the final could act as a catalyst to help heal some of the country’s complicated issues.

“It will mean a lot but it can’t mean something for a week. It must mean something and we must then capitalize on that and use it and fix South Africa with it.”

Erasmus believes the 28-year-old Kolisi’s humble upbringing in the Zwide township in Port Elizabeth makes him the ideal man to lead the team.

When the Springboks were crowned world champions in 2007, a 16-year-old Kolisi had to watch the final in a tavern as there was no television at home.

“With a guy with his background, it’s very tough to become entitled,” Erasmus says.

“Because you always remember: ‘I was hungry there, I didn’t have food there, I had to walk there, my parents couldn’t do that for me, I didn’t have shoes there, I had to get the bus there or miss the taxi there,’ a guy like that always has his feet on the ground.

“He doesn’t talk a lot, he’s a brilliant player — first of all — players look up to him because he’s a brilliant player, he’s always fit, he’s always available, always humble and I guess those are things what other teammates want from a good captain.”

Kolisi’s appointment as the first black captain in the Springboks’ 126-year history unsurprisingly drew an enormous amount of attention, both positive and, sadly, negative.

Despite Erasmus admitting he was surprised by the scale of the reaction, he says it’s a testament to Kolisis as both a player and person that he took it all in his stride.

“I didn’t think it would be such a big issue to be honest with you,” Erasmus says. “So I didn’t make a big thing about that and I just said: Siya, you’re captain for this June series.’ He was overwhelmed and I was overwhelmed by the public and the TV and the emotions and everything.

“I thought: ‘Oh hell, this is the wrong decision,’ not because I thought Siya was the wrong captain but this will definitely catch Siya off guard and it caught me off guard.

“But the great thing is, he worked through it and he worked through it and he worked through it, and now we’re sitting 25 Test matches later and he’s in great shape.

“He’s a great captain and that’s a great thing about him, you know, even when I messed it up by not doing it step-by-step and overthinking it or [not] thinking it through better, he got it right.”

CNN

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