Rassie Erasmus' bizarre social media warfare campaign is working

Rassie Erasmus' bizarre social media warfare campaign is working
Rassie Erasmus' bizarre social media warfare campaign is working

These are shaky times for rugby and its resolutely high opinion of itself. The sport has generally considered itself morally superior, the thug’s game played by gentlemen and watched by other gentlemen who all respect the kicker and can tell you their top five favourite Ports. But as the World Cup enters its all-important 37th week, this gilded status is under threat.

We have seen men dressed as Admiral Nelson catapulting other men over seats in Marseille. We have a draw so flawed Steve Borthwick’s England are apparently superior to France and Ireland. But no one sums up erosion of the old propriety like dastardly Rassie Erasmus.

Plenty of well-known evidence that South Africa’s director of rugby is just Jose Mourinho with line-outs, but most pertinent is his use of social media. He has weaponised it, in a way which would be unthinkable for someone like Borthwick, almost certainly more of a LinkedIn man.

@‌RassieRugby has 250 posts on the website formerly known as Twitter, so hardly a power user. Gareth Southgate, for comparison, has 2,784 but has not tweeted since 2015. But social media is not about consistency, it is the friends you lose along the way. Reading through his output is exhausting and leaves you feeling undermined without really knowing why. A rude four-letter word comes to mind which could prefix both “stirring” and “housery”.

It begins innocuously enough in February 2020 with sweary videos of Erasmus addressing his team. There is much talk of sacrifice, excellence, mindset, lekka pie charts, etc. We reach an early nadir in the summer of 2021 when Erasmus retweeted the mysterious Jaco Johan, definitely not the coach operating under another name. Johan had generously highlighted some refereeing decisions he disagreed with in the first Lions Test. This along with the apparently leaked hour-long video of Erasmus attacking officials leaves him permanently sullied in the eyes of many purists.

Rassie Erasmus' bizarre social media warfare campaign is working
Rassie Erasmus is plotting another South African World Cup title - Getty Images/Justin Setterfield

From there we have a negging campaign against Clive Woodward, more distinctly sarcastic-sounding refereeing analysis, then last year’s full descent into classic pass-agg self-absorbed troll nonsense. “Guys,” he said, never a promising start, “please free to block or mute me, its really not a problem and better for our health!! Sorry if any of the tweets were offending you!! Also of [sic] you dont [sic] agree with my tweets please ignore them&dont [sic] use for click bate [sic] man, use your own tweets and stuff dont [sic] be a parasite Lekka”.

We must at this point recognise that Erasmus is not just a social media blowhard. He can do no wrong in the eyes of many South Africans, he made Siya Kolisi the country’s first black captain, and seemed a magnanimous figure until relatively recently. If his team wins back-to-back World Cup either side of a Lions tour he has a fair claim to being one of the best coaches of all time.

It is not all so serious either. He drew for a clown emoji reacting to Irish presenter Ger Gilroy who took the mickey out of some recent pre-game chat. There was a Yoda gif “I sense much fear in you” in response to a story of commentator Stuart Barnes criticising South Africa’s involvement in European rugby. The latest Erasmus scheme is to follow no one other than the team South Africa is about to play and changing his profile picture to a bulldog wearing a cowboy hat. All quite fun, all quite “oh no, grandad’s got an iPhone.”

Erasmus is more or less alone in his sport as a pantomime villain, just as it is a tiny minority of rugby fans misbehaving and vomiting over children. It is also a minority who hold sanctimonious attitudes about rugby’s virtue. Just.

Of course, Erasmus’ posts are all a deflection tactic, and they are working. You are reading about him, not his team. And yet the sense is of a slide towards the lowest common denominator. Whether Erasmus’ behaviour amuses or enrages you if he continues to succeed, exploiting not just social media but the grey areas within rugby’s unwritten codes, there will be copycats.

After games as good as last weekend’s rugby can certainly survive the odd Erasmus. A sport full of imitators, though, and it would lose its moral high ground forever.