Tony Ward: The Erasmus dilemma - If Rassie goes, what should Munster do?
Everyone in Munster hopes he stays on but province must be ready if he moves elsewhere
I suggested ahead of Munster's kick-off with Toulouse, that the biggest game for the southern province in recent times represented the ideal opportunity - in practical and psychological terms - for Rassie Erasmus to nail his colours firmly to the red mast.
The failure to do so, despite the best effort of senior players to play it down (Simon Zebo's take not mine), leaves a veil of uncertainty hanging over Munster rugby as the most exciting and demanding phase of the season comes into view.
In the absence of any clear white smoke, Zebo is bang on when suggesting "we have no issues over speculation we can't control". So let me nail my colours even more firmly to the mast. I dearly hope that the Munster head coach and his equally influential assistant Jacques Nienaber stay in situ for the duration of their three-year contract at least.
What Stuart Lancaster has added to Leinster since his arrival has been more than matched by the inspirational South African pairing at Munster. Indeed given what they inherited, and what they have had to endure on the field and off since their arrival back in June, the transformation has been incredible.
The saddest part of course being that Anthony Foley, unlike Leo Cullen, hasn't been there to benefit from their input and for Foley, like Cullen, to become a top-quality provincial coach and prospective Ireland coach in the making.
I am no legal eagle but I do so wish something could be done about these mad-hatter contractual release clauses. At least Pat Lam was some three years into his and not in the first 12 months like Erasmus should the former Springbok trigger his 'get-out' valve now. Naturally, Zebo and any other current player will make all the right soundings and say all the right things.
But like the versatile back-three player I would like to see Erasmus see out his time at Munster for a myriad of reasons. More than anything because he's a damn fine coach, as proved by his winning record and the style of play he has employed since his arrival
What I found most revealing about the Munster coaching duo, and I would be of kindred spirit to Zebo on this, "They're both very similar men with great rugby brains. Their reaction when we make mistakes is incredible, brilliant. There is absolutely no fear whatsoever. Jacques is the first person to say if you miss a tackle, give it 100pc and who cares if you miss it. And it's the same in attack if you want to try an offload".
In the modern game of claustrophobic defending and fear, such an enlightened approach from the two calling the shots is like a breath of fresh air. It has been suggested that if Erasmus is to go then a compromise could be reached whereby Nienaber could move into the chief pilot's seat. From what I hear at ground level such an arrangement would be more than acceptable to the players and current coaching staff.
In such a scenario (which I repeat I hope doesn't arise) then with Nienaber as director in succession to Erasmus, the need would be for a forward coach and I cannot think of a more appropriate candidate in that regard than a certain Paul O'Connell.
With Niall O'Donovan continuing as manager and Jerry Flannery along with Felix Jones bridging the vast chasm between playing and coaching, arguably the province's greatest ever player would fit the bill admirably.
Given his current involvement in the Academy, his leadership and communicative qualities allied to his status, he would seem the perfect fit, assuming that coaching is the future route he wishes to go. Like most I am fascinated at the possibility of the 'dream coaching team' as in Ronan O'Gara and O'Connell one day coming together at the helm of the provincial team.
I really admire O'Gara for the path he has chosen to go. He is learning his trade well away from the comfort zone of home and that takes courage. I would like to think that he and Munster will be the mutual beneficiaries somewhere down the road.
Whether in the immediate future the current incumbent is the clear and obvious key. Should he move back to South Africa but take Nienaber along with him then it is a whole new ball game. In that scenario, what about the O'Gara/O'Connell dream team but with a Lancaster/Erasmus type figure like Declan Kidney or Eddie O'Sullivan alongside, even if it is to be in a consultancy role? For whatever reason Munster have put the shutters up on O'Sullivan moving back to the province of his birth. Kidney, by contrast, is based in Cork as Director of Sport in UCC. But rugby and rugby coaching is still his passion and just like Erasmus, Joe Schmidt, Lancaster and Les Kiss, he is a humble man of vast experience and winning experience at that.
Along with Flannery, Jones, O'Gara, O'Connell and O'Donovan, it would make for the perfect coaching team with all bar Jones Munster-bred and the latter fast becoming an adopted Limerick man.
All that said, let me repeat that I, just like Zebo, hope that Erasmus is going nowhere and that he is genuine when apparently assuring the players that they have nothing to worry about.
On a different tack, as the Guinness Pro12, of which INM is the official media partner for the Championship series, moves towards that phase, the organising body through Adam Redmond, its Communications Manager, have just issued (in impressive brochure form) some interesting statistics for the Pro12 relative to other domestic competitions in this part of the world.
Apparently, there is more scoring, more fans (just how big a part does Ireland play in that?), more international players, more impact in Europe, more substance (as in offloads etc) and more positive play. I am not one for stats preferring judgement based on what I see; however, there is no doubt that save for the Italian issue, the Pro12, particularly since Guinness came on board, has come a long way since the Celtic League days of old.
In the transformation from ERC (Heineken Cup) to EPCR (Champions Cup), the Pro12 inadvertently moved to another level. Through meritocracy and the need to qualify for Europe in any given season (again the token Italian presence apart), the Pro12 is now, as this promotional campaign would have it, 'much more than you think'.
There is, however, one so-called positive I find difficult to get my head around and it relates to positive play, specifically from a penalty awarded in the opposition half. The Pro12 figures reveal kicking to the corner at 54pc, kicking at goal (a necessary evil at 36pc) with tap and go (10pc). I know I'm losing my few remaining forward friends here but calling kicking to the corner positive play? Spare me.