Alan Quinlan: Barbies, disco lights and happy families: welcome to the Erasmus programme
Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30
He had just got back from training when the call came. A big, friendly man, his warmth was evident from the moment he picked up the phone.
"Well, Quinny, what's the craic?"
Three years after leaving Munster, you have to wonder if Munster has ever left Wian du Preez. He still has the phrases, the sense of humour and the sense of place. And after a few minutes talking about old times, it wasn't long before we got down to business.
Even though he is no longer a Munster player, Wian wants the province to do well. He has a lot of time not just for Anthony Foley, but also for Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus, the man who will become Munster's first director of rugby and who du Preez played under for the Free State Cheetahs.
"All of us loved him," Wian said of Erasmus. "Within no time at all, he had got this great bond going among the entire squad."
What happened was this. Free State had gone 29 years without a Currie Cup; Erasmus - in his first major coaching job - pulled together a squad, filled with youth and experience, and intelligently went about improving their self-belief and team spirit.
What the world could see was their togetherness on the pitch, their high energy levels, their impressive set-plays, their clearly rehearsed moves.
What the world couldn't see was what Erasmus was doing in the background.
"He made a big thing about getting us to socialise together," du Preez said. "So Tuesday night became barbeque night."
Erasmus would arrange the food. A house would be picked. It would be one player one week, another the next. The food would arrive first, then the players and their partners afterwards.
"Making sure our wives and girlfriends were happy was a big thing of Rassie's because he knew about our backgrounds, how we came from different parts of the country," du Preez said.
So, conscious of the possibility of players and their families feeling isolated, Erasmus sought to ensure there was harmony rather than discord.
The wife of one of his coaches was put in charge of liaising with all the players' partners and letting them know that if any issue cropped up, that she would do what she could to help them out.
A bus was put on to transport them in and out of the stadium for matches. They'd get their own corporate box, allowing them to sit together, rather than in isolation, and allowing the players to meet up with them without any stress after the game.
While this sort of stuff happens to a lot to teams, it was a priority for Erasmus, who felt getting the mood right off the pitch was as important as getting the team right, on it.
Was this the reason they won their first Currie Cup title in 29 years? Why they shared the trophy the next season and then won it outright the year after that?
Of course not. You need good players, firstly, and good coaching, secondly.
But you also need a man in charge who thinks outside the box, who can sense what's important. And the thing that mattered to that squad was their families.
What also mattered to Erasmus was fixing the disco lights.
He had noted how teams had begun to cop on to their training-ground moves. They knew their calls and were starting to interrupt, or intercept, their moves.
So he got on to the club's PA guy, arranged for disco lights to be installed on the top of the grandstand and insisted upon being handed a device which enabled him to change the colour of the lights any time he pressed a button.
"The point was that once we saw the lights change, we knew what move to carry out," du Preez said. "It worked a treat.
"What we also liked was the way he spoke to us," du Preez added. "He treats you with respect. He's honest. He never talks down to you."
Instead, he looked out for those who lacked self-belief and arranged to meet them on one-to-one sessions.
"How're things?" he'd ask. And then he had ability to make guys feel better about themselves - while all the while knowing, that if they stepped out of line, that he was also capable of losing his cool.
That's what the best coaches do. They don't just read out the team from a piece of paper and walk away. They identify the areas a player needs to work on and communicate that information to them. Sounds simple but not every coach does that.
Another strength is his capacity to develop and improve young players, precisely what Munster need right now after such a disappointing season.
Most of all they need someone to help rebuild their collective self-confidence, which has taken a hammering this season.
Erasmus will bring a positive energy, will work on generating belief on the training field, on getting guys to see the talent within the squad, on being as successful with Munster as he has been with the Cheetahs, the Stormers and as performance director with the Springboks.
Given the depth and quality of his CV, you'd wonder why he'd want to travel to a team that is heading into the last round of the Pro12 with 12 defeats from 27 competitive games this season.
Partially, it's because of the political issues inherent in South African rugby. Would a coach with his pedigree want to be talking about quotas in a boardroom when the option is there to discuss tactics on a training pitch?
So Munster - with its rich history and with its youthful squad - suits him.
Yet be under no doubt that this is a difficult situation for Axel Foley. If it was me, I wouldn't be happy with what has happened, how a person is being catapulted in above your head, to make signings and make decisions. If it was me, I would want to make those signings myself.
Yet the Anthony Foley that I knew, and played with, is a resilient man. He was always a leader, and had ups and downs in his career. Another up could be on the horizon. So I hope he stays. For his sake as well as for Munster's.