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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 22 June, 2018

Homeward bound Erasmus still has time to leave a legacy behind at Munster

There’s another transitional period ahead for Munster with Erasmus returning to South Africa at the end of the year, but he can make lasting changes in this pre-season.

IT’S BEEN A LENGTHY old period of speculation and deflection as Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus attempted to walk the tightrope between returning to a dream job in South Africa and remaining the face of Munster’s progress.

Rassie Erasmus Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In April, when he nodded and unleashed that unmistakable grin to say that he would indeed be around to oversee Munster next season, it was hard to escape the notion that there was a large asterisk somewhere in his words.

In fairness to Erasmus, before his first season in Ireland had begun he left a wafer thin veil over his long-term ambition. At 43, he felt an international head coach should be in his 50s with a family reared. Less than a year later, he has leapfrogged over the Springbok head coach job he narrowly missed out on and taken higher office.

Along with the statement signalling Erasmus’ appointment as SARU director of rugby, there was something of a vote of confidence for head coach Allister Coetzee. But it’s easy to imagine Erasmus slipping down into the coach’s box if there is another disastrous run of form before the World Cup.

It’s tough to begrudge Erasmus a move home to such high-powered role. He has three children not yet in their teens and the nomadic life of a coach can often put a strain on family. The problem for Munster is that the move signals yet another period of transition, uncertainty and all of the problems that come hand in hand with change.

Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber will fly south for good after December, and they will leave behind plenty of warm sentiment and memories of a team that somehow managed to play ferocious rugby through a period of mourning. But a legacy is difficult to establish without silverware or a style revolution.

Rassie Erasmus Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Towards the end of the season, when the limitations to Munster’s direct gameplan were exploited by Saracens and Scarlets, Erasmus spoke with passion about building on Munster’s attack. Such structures are difficult to put in place in three midweek sessions between games, so pre-season was set as the time to work through new developments.

However, with new coaches needed midway through the next campaign – at a time when the Champions Cup pool stages climax before front-line players go away with Ireland for six weeks – players will have to suspend disbelief to fully buy in to the project.

Doubtless, Munster players will keep heads down, shoulders to wheels and try to work through Erasmus’s exit. They will endeavour to make things easy for Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery and the new man in. But it will take a considerable amount of effort from body and mind.

There is no perfect time to go in search of a replacement for coaches as good as Erasmus and Nienaber and their December exit is both a blessing and a curse. Midway through the season, it leaves the possibility of an interim solution; an experienced head (and there are a few Munster natives who fit the bill) to come in and alongside Jones and Flannery while a long-term head coach or director cleans out his desk at another European club.

Jacques Nienaber, CJ Stander and Rassie Erasmus CJ Stander at the Munster awards ceremony last month with Jacques Nienaber (left) and Rassie Erasmus. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Of course, December also falls nicely within the Super Rugby off-season, so a southern-hemisphere coach with more than a two-year mandate could easily shrug off the notion of Munster being in transition. Still, the timing of Erasmus’s move to the exit has come well after most coaches have secured contract extensions or new challenges up north.

Perhaps there is quality to be mined from the under-threat Super Rugby sides. Western Force where South African David Wessels is a defence specialist who has filled a void as head coach. South African-based options may be more difficult to salvage given the intensifying reports that the Cheetahs and Southern Kings could join an expanded Pro12 competition as early as next season.

Whatever solution Munster’s Professional Game Board and the IRFU come to, whatever name they think fits the job spec and what stage of a season they arrive to take over, there is no perfect answer.

Erasmus’s greatest feat during these past 12 months in Ireland was to pull Munster together and display minimum disruption throughout the unthinkably difficult time after Anthony Foley’s death.

This first four months of the season ahead will be a completely different challenge, but everyone involved in the province must put the same skills to use.

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Sean Farrell

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