Rassie Erasmus still has one eye on fortunes of Munster as he carries weight of a nation
Springboks supremo ramping up his side’s World Cup preparation ahead of URC showdown
No other coach in rugby operates under the kind of conditions Rassie Erasmus does, expected to deliver hope to a despairing nation.
Forget his lofty title, SA Rugby’s director of Rugby remains the figurehead of the Springboks and he wears the weight of a nation lightly.
Yesterday, he sat alongside future Leinster coach Jacques Nienaber at SARU’s headquarters overlooking Cape Town and on the occasions his head coach was speaking, he found himself gazing out the window at the shroud of Table Mountain looming over a cloudy Mother City.
In between being asked about the health of captain Siya Kolisi, scrum-half depth, Rugby Championship opponents and Nienaber’s replacement, Erasmus was asked a question that no other coach of an international team would receive; one that sums up his and his team’s role in a country at a low ebb.
“The year 2019 was such a momentous thing for this country,” the questioner began. “A lot of the planning over the next couple of months is fairly technical, but how cognisant are you that we need some good news in this country? The lights are off, things aren’t working. You are under pressure to deliver again, because if you don’t deliver we’re going to be even more down in the dumps.”
Power outages, corruption and crime are dragging the mood down in South Africa and it sometimes seems like Erasmus’ team’s mission is to lift the gloom.
He may be able to play the villain at times; dominating the Lions series with his cameos as a waterboy and video nasties, before earning the wrath of World Rugby last November when he took to social media to question referees in the wake of defeats to Ireland and France.
Yet, he can also cut a statesmanlike figure who says that it is easier to bear the weight of expectation this time around because they learned so much when winning the trophy in 2019.
It’s why he’s so beloved in his native land, why such a large cohort of media turned up to listen to him talk ahead of the shortened Rugby Championship, which kicks off in July.
The health of Kolisi is the major talking point here and the Springboks could pick their captain even if he isn’t ready for the tournament opener against Scotland.
Most eyes might be drawn towards the world champions’ battle with Ireland on September 25 and Erasmus was asked if the Stormers can strike an early blow by downing Munster in tomorrow’s United Rugby Championship final, but Erasmus knows there is too much water to be crossed before he worries about that.
South Africa have Scotland up first and that, he believes, is the key to the pool.
“Everbody’s talking Ireland, Ireland, Ireland,” he said. “People are underestimating the value of the Scotland game and Scotland are probably going there thinking why are you guys not talking about us, they’ve probably got seven South African-born guys in their team.
“Scotland and Ireland play each other last, so they’ll probably have to win that, the quarter-final, semi-final in a row to go to a final.
“Ireland’s important and, yes, they’re going to be big but in my opinion the Scottish Test match is probably the biggest match for us currently.”
Make no mistake, however, they’ve been watching Ireland closely and were interested observers as La Rochelle’s pack monstered Leinster’s last weekend.
“I sometimes think people underestimate what Ronan knows about the soul of the Irish players in Leinster and Munster, he knows them really well,” he said of Ronan O’Gara’s side.
“It will be interesting if it’s an Ireland v France quarter-final and a New Zealand v South Africa quarter-final, but I don’t want to decide that, I just want fate or destiny to decide it.
“Ireland are No 1 in the world; last year we went there and lost to them. They’re still No 1, they beat France, they’ve got Leinster ruling until the semi-final and final matches.
“Nobody could argue that they are the No 1 in the world, they beat us last year and their development has been unbelievable.”
Tomorrow, Erasmus will be hoping for a Stormers win.
He coached both clubs and is currently in charge of a number of the home side’s players, so he wants them bouncing into camp on Sunday.
At the same time, he understands what a title would mean for Munster.
“The last time Munster were here, Dobbo asked me to do the team-talk before the game and it was the one game they lost!” he said with a laugh.
“What Munster did for us, I can say it over and over and whether people believe it or not, I know what Munster did for me personally; how I got better as a person and a coach.
“Certainly, a lot of things I learned there and brought back to South Africa.
“Maybe the home ground, the Stormers crowd, the way Dobbo (John Dobson) has managed that team.... but Munster did come here (last month) and Manie (Libbok) did miss a couple of kicks, but hell they hang in there and it was three or four weeks after the Sharks put 50 points on them.
“That shows you how mentally strong they are. They’re made for play-off rugby, for finals and semi-finals.
“I don’t want the Stormers to lose but it wouldn’t feel so bad if it’s Munster.”
Ever the statesman. He’ll have a role to play in Ireland’s year yet.