Thursday 14 December 2017

Comment: Landing innovator Erasmus a shrewd move for Munster

New Munster director of rugby Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images
New Munster director of rugby Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus was turning the Free State Cheetahs from also-rans to Currie Cup contenders back in the mid-2000s, it was not unusual to see him perched atop the stand at the Arena Stadium holding colour-coded cards aloft.

Later, the former Springbok erected a set of disco lights on top of the stand. Unsurprisingly in deeply conservative rugby country in the Highveld, the unusual methods drew plenty of scepticism and some criticism, but when the province ended a 29-year-wait for the prestigious trophy, no one was questioning his methods.

Munster's new director of rugby and de facto head coach is an innovator and respected coach who represents a heavyweight appointment for a province that appears to have lost its way in recent years. He might not be the biggest name on the circuit, but he is respected in coaching circles.

Consider the fact that when Leinster went to the market after parting company with Matt O'Connor, they failed to come up with an international candidate of suitable quality and instead promoted Leo Cullen. A year later, Munster have acquired a man who was shortlisted to coach South Africa a month ago.

Having won 36 caps between 1997 and 2001, he retired and embarked on a career in coaching that has seen him involved at provincial, Super Rugby and international level for more than a decade. His last role within the South African system was as the head of SARU's rugby department, David Nucifora's equivalent position in the IRFU.

Interestingly, the Australian played a role in hiring the South African in consultation with Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald and spoke of Erasmus's stature as an "outstanding talent" in yesterday's press release.

His is likely to be joined by highly-rated Springbok defence coach Jacques Nienaber with whom he has a long working relationship and friendship.

When Munster went to the market for a director of rugby, they spoke of a man who would make signings and develop structures. It was clear that they have hired a man who will do much more.

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While Anthony Foley will remain in place with the title of 'Head Coach' for the first of Erasmus's three seasons, the former captain will no longer pick the team, set out the tactics or recruit players.

All of his most important responsibilities will transfer to the South African and, in many ways, Foley is back to where he was when Rob Penney was the man in charge.

As Fitzgerald said yesterday, this is a ruthless business and Foley's all-Irish coaching ticket have failed to deliver the required results. He has presided over a startling decline in fortunes and, for all that there are mitigating factors, it is clear that Munster need change.

Everyone in the organisation has come in for deserved criticism and Fitzgerald has conceded that his own job is on the line with this appointment, but he deserves credit for securing the services of an ambitious, experienced operator who looks capable of turning the province's fortunes around.

Although he has received the Nucifora endorsement, Munster need Erasmus to stand up to the man who blocked their move for Stephen Moore this season. After years dealing with the politics in South Africa, he will be prepared for the intricacies of the boardroom here.

They will need his expertise on the pitch in covering up the clear deficiencies in the squad and knowledge of the southern hemisphere market to bring in some much-needed overseas talent to improve the panel.

He must do this while managing his relationship with the man he has effectively replaced for a year at least. Foley famously loves Munster, but his loyalty will surely be tested after this demotion.

After a season of doom and gloom that could still culminate in the two-time champions missing out on the Champions Cup next season, yesterday's appointment is a statement from Munster that they can return to the top table. It won't be easy, but this is a step in the right direction.

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