Wednesday 16 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Erasmus ready to bite the hand that fed him'

Felix Jones' recent addition to the Springbok coaching ticket has compounded a sense that South Africa's head coach may have been planning for this World Cup long before he left Munster

Rassie’s Irish connection: South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus knows Irish rugby well from his time in charge of Munster where he spent met the likes of Leo Cullen (pictured), Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
Rassie’s Irish connection: South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus knows Irish rugby well from his time in charge of Munster where he spent met the likes of Leo Cullen (pictured), Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Munster, maybe the warmest memories of Rassie Erasmus reach back into those wretched, gauzy days immediately after Anthony Foley's passing.

The clipped, military bearing of his army years communicated formal grace from a landscape of broken people. And that eloquence became a blessing. Emotions floundering all around him, Erasmus' words carried the cushion of gentle distance.

He'd only been working with Foley a few months and could be a surrogate of sorts now for 'Axel's' ashen comrades. Yet those close to the dais for his first Limerick press conference after the return from Paris noted too a trembling right leg as he spoke. His composure was illusory, but it carried them through a week from hell.

The rest of it?

In his time with the province, Erasmus recorded an 81% success rate in Pro 12/14 competition, winning 21 of 26 games. A better return, in other words, than even Joe Schmidt managed with Leinster (75%). His first full season as head coach saw him bring Munster to a Pro 12 final and a Champions Cup semi-final.

Yet, it is as if the tenor of his leaving colours everything.

Immediately after defeat to Saracens in that Champions Cup semi-final, Erasmus assured media that - contrary to rumours of an imminent return to South Africa -he had no intention of leaving Munster. "Yes, yes, yes, yes," he declared, palpably impatient at being asked if he'd be staying another year.

Departure

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He'd been equally forthright to his players, hooker Niall Scannell noting that same evening in Dublin how the coach's promises had been "hugely reassuring".

Yet some within the Munster camp already knew that Erasmus had, one month earlier, triggered the release clause from his three-year contract. This week, one of them recalled standing at that press conference in Lansdowne Road and thinking "Oh God, if you only knew the half of it!"

Two-and-a-half years later, Erasmus is - barring some implausible deviation in form on the horizon - the coach who will stand between Ireland and a first-ever World Cup semi-final. South Africa, after all, look certain to meet Joe Schmidt's men in Tokyo on October 20.

And, ostensibly, that seems the shortest of possible straws for a group winner.

Three months after Erasmus' return home as the SARU's Director of Rugby, Allister Coetzee was sacked as Springbok coach. He'd overseen an abysmal run of form, decanting a 2016 Rome loss to Italy; the Springboks' heaviest defeat in 111 years (0-57 against the All Blacks in Albany) and ultimately delivering just 11 wins in 25 Test matches over two years.

His employment terminated, Coetzee submitted an extraordinary 19-page letter to the SARU, suggesting that his appointment had been an exercise in tokenism based only on his skin colour; indeed one undermined by "interference and lack of support" and ultimately asterisked by a clear desire to have him replaced by Erasmus in time for this World Cup.

This, naturally, is denied, by the former Munster coach who had, originally, been favourite to replace Heyneke Meyer in the post two years earlier. Coetzee's view, though, was that he got the job only because "the SARU wanted to avoid any controversy based on race".

Whether or not this claim bears any validity, there's no doubting that many in South African rugby took a slightly jaundiced view of Erasmus' swift return from Ireland.

Former Boks coach, Jake White, questioned the SARU's sincerity in giving their former high performance general manager two jobs now instead of one. As both head coach and director of rugby, Erasmus would - on his own admission - be spending 70% of his time with the national team.

White claims that, before Erasmus's return, he told the cash-strapped union that he was willing to work as their director of rugby for free. His offer was rejected.

So Erasmus went home in November 2017, bringing with him trusted lieutenants Jacques Nienaber and Aled Walters before, of course, recently adding another former Munster employee - Felix Jones -to his coaching ticket.

He was technical advisor to the Springboks at both the 2007 and 2011 World Cups and has, by his own admission, been embedded in the South African system since the mid-90s. That system is committed to a 50/50 split between whites and players of colour in every squad and it is said that Erasmus's diplomatic skills have ensured a largely smooth adherence to that 'quota' ideal.

Just last month, a 46-13 hammering of Argentina secured the Boks their first southern hemisphere Rugby Championship title in a decade, prompting SARU president, Mark Alexander, to declare "Rassie brought us back!"

Erasmus is remembered in Munster as a strong, charismatic personality favouring precisely the kind of highly-physical, territorial rugby that now seems perfectly suited to arguably the most muscular squad at this World Cup.

He certainly has a level of support from his union denied to Coetzee or even Meyer before him, the SARU softening their stance on capping overseas players and warming to Erasmus' enthusiasm for ring-fencing smaller, elite squads as happens in Ireland.

He has described his time with Munster as "the best 18 months of my life, not just in rugby", yet there's no doubting that some in the province - to this day - still feel distinctly used by the former 'Boks captain.

As one put it this week: "Rassie's good at winning people over, a charismatic sort of guy. And the young coaches really locked onto everything he said. But, looking back at that year-and-a-half now, it's hard not to believe that he was always going home nearly from the start of it.

"In fairness, he handled the press really well. But one thing that's hard to get out of your head is how, when people were asking questions about South Africa, he could stand there in front of them and just tell them something that wasn't true."

For all that, his people skills have - clearly - thrived since in the most politically sensitive dressing room in world rugby.

Three years back, former Munster player - Wian de Preez - offered Alan Quinlan a glimpse in these pages of the kind of innovation that helped Erasmus, in his first major coaching job, lead Free State Cheetahs to their first Currie Cup win in 29 years.

"He arranged for disco lights to be installed at the top of the grandstand," recalled de Preez.

"And insisted on being handed a device enabling him change the colour of those lights with the press of a button. Once we saw the lights change, we knew what move to carry out."

Erasmus also nurtured regular social engagement, not simply between players, but their wives and girlfriends too. As De Preez recalled: "Tuesday night became barbecue night."

Nienaber, a former physio and army colleague, has been his most trusted lieutenant since they first formed an alliance at Western Province in 2008. He was hugely respected at Munster as defence coach, yet there was never any question of him staying on after Erasmus's departure.

The province did rebuff their former coach's first effort to bring Jones to South Africa, so there was little surprise at his recent recruitment of the 13-times capped Ireland international once he, too, had parted company with Munster in the off-season.

Jones, once described by Conor Murray as "an energiser bunny" for his relentless appetite to learn, has now replaced Swys de Bruin as the Boks' attack coach.

It is an appointment that, clearly, won't have entertained either Schmidt or the IRFU, given that quarter-final collision looming and a growing sense now that Erasmus's time here may, ultimately, prove more beneficial to South African rugby than to Ireland. He did make a point of thanking Munster people at the time for seeing "the bigger picture", insisting "people seldom leave Munster for another club... if you don't get fired.

"I've never walked out of a contract, but I've never had the opportunity to walk out of a contract into a national one."

The civility was reciprocated by Munster CEO, Garret Fitzgerald, who referenced Erasmus's leadership "through our most difficult time with the untimely passing of Axel".

But this is a story with lingering scars.

Tokyo in three weeks may just re-open them.

Irish Independent

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