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Rassie Erasmus' new Munster era brings emphasis on physicality

Francis Saili and Conor Murray are enthusiastic ahead of the new season.

PRE-SEASON IS always a time of optimism, but Munster expect the arrival of Rassie Erasmus to signal a turnaround in their fortunes.

After a desperately disappointing season under Anthony Foley in 2015/16, when the southern province came close to missing out on Champions Cup qualification, the South African has come on board as director of rugby.

Conor Murray and Francis Saili Conor Murray and Francis Saili in the new Munster alternate kit. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With the highly-regarded Jacques Nienaber joining him as defence coach, suddenly it feels as if Munster can build momentum before a campaign in which they look to compete for a Pro12 title and return to the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup.

As they launched their new alternate kit in Cork yesterday, some of the province’s star players pushed the idea that Munster can move swiftly on from last season under new boss Erasmus.

“It was frustrating to be honest, we knew it was a bad year for us and we will take all the learning curves from that,” says centre Francis Saili. “But now we’re not looking on last season, only to this season.”

Saili and the majority of the squad are into week six of their pre-season under the new coaching staff – which also includes Foley, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones – but Ireland internationals like Conor Murray are only joining this week.

The 27-year-old begins his 2016/17 season today, with a 1k test to follow tomorrow, but has been hearing good things about the new regime in Limerick.

“It’s a new philosophy, a new voice,” says Murray of the arrival of Erasmus and Nienaber. “Zeebs [Simon Zebo] said there’s a lot of emphasis on physicality and dominating your opposition, which is very South African. The way we’ve been trying to play in the breakdown, we’ve been using it for the last year and it’s still there.

“New voices, new players coming back, a lot of combinations make it fresh. I’m looking forward to getting back; I genuinely can’t wait.”

Murray met Erasmus while on tour in South Africa with Ireland, being impressed by the former SARU man’s energy, while he appreciates the reputation that Nienaber brings to Ireland.

“I met Rassie in Johannesburg before we played South Africa and he just seemed like a really enthusiastic guy who knows his rugby,” says Murray.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 99 - Semi Final - South Africa v Australia Erasmus is a former Springbok. Source: EMPICS Sport

“He was itching to get over when I met him, he was itching to move over and get started with the lads, just put his stamp on things. Just talking to a few lads who know him and the South African system, they speak very highly of him and Jacques.

“It wasn’t unrest, but people weren’t happy that Jacques left South Africa. That’s only going to be good for us. It has to be a good thing for us. He seems like a great guy.”

Heading into his second season with Munster, Saili is similarly enthusiastic about the freshness the new coaching ticket has added.

“I came into pre-season last year and it was a bit difficult because I had been playing the New Zealand style but the new staff in now have a good energy about it, a good passion about it and the best thing is there is a lot of clarity as to what is wanted,” says Saili.

Murray stresses that Munster don’t need to rip up everything they had in place for the last two seasons under Foley, saying that the foundation exists for Erasmus to make “a bit stronger and more watertight.”

History remains an important part of Munster’s make-up and the scrum-half feels the ongoing presence of Foley and Flannery, as well as the introduction of Jones as a skills specialist, is important in that regard.

Murray has little doubt that they will ensure Erasmus and Nienaber feel firmly at home.

“Felix is an energiser bunny, he’ll just be full-throttle about this,” says Murray. “He’ll be chatting to the coaches morning, noon and night to fill them in on things we do well and all those little things they might need to know but might not have understood before coming here.

Felix Jones with Andy Farrell Jones is now part of the coaching staff. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“You can rest assured that Felix will be looking after that. It’s in everyone’s best interests, it’s a professional thing.

“You all have to get on as a coaching group to make it work and I think the initial impression I get from speaking to the lads is that everyone has… not wiped last year under the carpet, but has forgotten about the badness and wants to move forward, make it work.”

The first on-pitch challenge for this revamped Munster set-up comes with a pre-season friendly against Zebre in Waterford on 19 August, before attention turns to the Pro12 and a bid to return to the play-offs.

Thereafter, the Champions Cup looms large – with Munster eager to ensure last year’s pool-stage exit is not repeated.

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“I love it, eventually you’re going to come up against these big teams anyway if you’re going to make it into the play-offs, so I feel it is a great challenge for us,” says Saili of Munster’s difficult-looking pool containing Racing 92, Glasgow and Leicester. “I feel we can do a lot better.”

The return of Ronan O’Gara to Thomond Park will be of particular interest in this campaign, and it’s something Saili is greatly excited about.

“Obviously, the King is coming back to Thomond Park, but it is a huge thing, isn’t it? When I was growing up, he was one of the players I used to admire, and we had a thing in training sessions when we used to practise ‘the O’Gara kick’ to the corner.

“With the Blues, we used to line up as backs kicking to the corner and shouting ‘O’Gara,’ to get a low trajectory to give the other wide players a chance to score.”

Ronan O'Gara assistant coach Racing 92 O'Gara will be back in Limerick for the Champions Cup. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

That contest lies some distance away for now, with Erasmus keeping his players focused on getting the utmost from their pre-season.

The players present in Cork yesterday expressed enthusiasm about the entire squad now being based in Limerick, where Munster’s new training facility is almost completed. Less travel time, more sessions together; the cohesiveness has been welcomed.

As Murray points out, the proof will be in the pudding, but the Erasmus era is off to a happy beginning at least.

“The new centre, the new coaches, the enthusiasm that I sense, it all looks good at the moment,” says Murray. “Hopefully, we can keep building that.”

Munster Rugby and adidas have launched the new Munster Rugby Alternate jersey which is available only at Life Style Sports, along with all Munster Rugby training kit and supporter’s wear. See www.lifestylesports.com and/or #MunsterRising for further details. 

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Murray Kinsella

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