THE POINT MAY have been slightly lost during yesterday’s muddle in Limerick, but Munster have secured themselves a world-class director of rugby.
For those fans who have been dismayed by the decline of the province, the appointment of Rassie Erasmus should truly be a reason to celebrate.
IRFU performance director David Nucifora, who played an important part in helping Munster to sign Erasmus, pointed out that Irish rugby can count itself “fortunate” to be able to look forward to his arrival this summer.
Indeed, many clubs or provinces around the world would be pleased to secure Erasmus as their top man. He was a major contender for the Springboks job that recently went to Allister Coetzee and has a proven track record in head coaching, developing young players and putting highly-functioning structures in place.
Erasmus’ commitment to a three-year contract underlines that he is convinced he can turn the Munster ship around.
The initial reaction to news of Erasmus’ departure from South Africa has been one of disappointment, the thinking being that one of the leading rugby brains in the country is heading offshore.
Erasmus will arrive to Munster as the boss. He will pick the team, dictate the tactical approach and designate the various coaching tasks to the staff around him.
Even aside from the specifics of the rugby, Erasmus is certain to have a telling impact on Munster. He’s a strong character and will have no hesitation in cracking skulls and pointing out organisational weaknesses wherever he sees them.
The South African has no ties to anyone in the Munster organisation and will demand the highest standards and professionalism in all aspects of the southern province’s modus operandi.
Erasmus will assume control of Munster’s recruitment and contracting, areas where they have admitted to struggling in recent times. He has contacts all over the coaching world, but it will be fascinating to see what kind of sway he has on players outside South Africa.
It would certainly be a surprise if Erasmus did not attract some South African talent to Munster, even in time for next season.
What about the approach on the pitch? Munster fans will be intrigued to see how Erasmus sets his team up and the most traditional of South African strengths are likely to be the foundation.
Erasmus’ Cheetahs and Stormers teams built everything from their base of confrontation up front through the lineout, maul and hard carries, while their defence was also prioritised.
When the Stormers reached the Super Rugby final in 2010 with Erasmus in charge and the Munster-linked Jacques Nienaber as defence coach, they conceded just 171 points in the regular season, more than 100 fewer than the next best defensive team.
Erasmus is an intelligent operator and not strictly limited to those basic tenets of the game. His innovative edge as a head coach was seen in the clever set-piece strike plays and trick moves his teams used to cut the opposition apart in attack.
Many of those ideas were based on Erasmus’ detailed analysis of the opposition, and that is one area of the game he places major focus on. Even in his most recent role with the South African Rugby Union, the importance of analysis was a message Erasmus distilled through the nation.
It’s unlikely that Munster will revert to a philosophy echoing Rob Penney’s wide-wide game plan of yesteryear, but Erasmus should increase Munster’s attacking effectiveness and the clarity of what exactly they are attempting to do with the ball.
Erasmus’ studentship of the game echoes that of current Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt.
Indeed, there are similarities in how Erasmus was sometimes accused of attempting to make his players in South Africa robotic. Erasmus is another coach who places great value in every player understanding their role and what needs to happen next.
His famous stunt involving the installation of various coloured lights in the Cheetahs’ stadium in order to direct the players to call certain plays is a prime example.
Erasmus is a rugby thinker who has always looked for an edge. Rather infamously, he was one of the first head coaches to take advantage of the 22-man match day squad by rotating his props during a single game.
Essentially, Erasmus would replace one of his Cheetahs starting props just before or after half time. The replacement prop would then pick up an ‘injury’ 15 minutes or so before the end of the game and the original starting prop would return after a rest.
The ploy was rapidly picked up by other teams around the world and eventually, along with the plague of uncontested scrums, saw the bench increased to eight players.
Erasmus has been out of head coaching for around four years now, but his intelligent and innovative streak should help him to pick up the reins very quickly.
At present it’s undecided what role Anthony Foley will have in the coaching set-up next season. He is the head coach by job title, but the actual content of his coaching on the training ground will be set by Erasmus.
CEO Garrett Fitzgerald yesterday stated that Foley could take on the defensive coaching or work on the breakdown. He may even implement Erasmus’ attacking plans on the training ground at the University of Limerick.
It’s worth underlining again that the relationship between this pair will be essential if Foley does not decide to walk away from Munster this summer.
Foley has played this assistant role before under Rob Penney, while Erasmus has managed a very similar relationship before at the Stormers.
Funnily enough, it was Allister Coetzee – who beat Erasmus to the Springboks job – who acted as head coach underneath him at the Stormers previously. Erasmus held the title of ‘senior professional coach’ at that time, a role that was described as “hands on”.
As will be the case at Munster too, Erasmus handled the Stormers’ tactics and game plans, while maintaining his status as a tracksuit coach on the training ground.
The Stormers took inspiration for their structure of that management team from football and all these years later, Munster have moved to the same model. Erasmus and Foley will need to hit it off if any unnecessary and damaging internal friction is to be avoided.
It remains to be seen who the other pieces of the Muster backroom jigsaw are. The highly-rated Jacques Nienaber would be another world-class addition as defence coach, even if Fitzgerald stated yesterday that he had not been interviewed or spoken to.
Financial limitations may limit Munster in this department, but Erasmus will certainly fight tooth and nail to ensure that he has excellent coaching talent around him.
There are those details still to be finalised, but the most important piece is in place for Munster.
As with the arrival of any new coach, Erasmus’ introduction for the first day of pre-season on 1 July is likely to produce a bounce effect for Munster as players fight to impress the new boss.
Supporters of the southern province will be hoping that the South African can lead Munster into a new era of growth and success.
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