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The Erasmus year at Munster: 'He was the most ruthless coach I ever met'

Dealing with Covid-related issues is testing the resolve of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber this summer – yet they came through bigger tests in their year at Thomond Park.

Rassie Read (1)

IN 2016 the brilliant South African coach, Rassie Erasmus, made the move from South Africa to Limerick. While he’d only stay for 17 months, his tenure was filled with drama, a revival of a famous club, an ongoing will-he-stay-or-will-he-go saga, and most tragically of all, the sudden death of the much loved Anthony Foley.

Five years on, Erasmus and his trusty sidekick, Jacques Nienaber, are set to be reunited with some of the characters from that eventful year; Conor Murray, the Lions captain and Gregor Townsend, the former Glasgow coach whose team took on Munster on the emotionally charged day that followed Foley’s funeral. That’s assuming, of course, that the Test series between the Lions and Springboks goes ahead, although with Covid cases in both camps, no one truly knows how this tour will pan out.

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But one thing we can be sure of though is this: Erasmus and Nienaber, irrespective of the circumstances, will showcase their talents as leaders, tacticians, even as diplomats. “The most ruthless man I’ve ever met,” said one of Erasmus’ former Munster players, Stephen Fitzgerald, “and also the most confident.”

This is the story of that Eramus year abroad.

Part One: Who is in charge?

Anthony Foley has been usurped by the appointment of Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus as their new director of rugby from next season, while Ian Costello and Mick O’Driscoll are moving on and the positions of Brian Walsh and Jerry Flannery are up in the air.

Too many chefs spoil the broth? Or in this case, who will the chefs be? Foley will fulfil the one-year contract extension which he has agreed for next season, but Munster’s future make-up, much like their status on the pitch, remains unclear. Gerry Thornley, Irish Times, April 2016.

MUNSTER WERE IN a mess in April 2016 and everyone could see it. Europe had been a disaster, the stand-out memory of that season’s sorry campaign being the passionate, and justified, criticism of the team by their former player, Alan Quinlan, after an inept display against Stade Francais. “That performance was borderline disgrace,” said Quinlan.

Others were asking questions, not just of their coach, Anthony Foley, but the entire organisation. In 2014 they had produced a three-year Strategic Plan, stating in big, bold print how qualifying for the Champions Cup quarter-finals was a base requirement. Yet for the second successive year, they got nowhere near it. They would finish that season sixth in the Pro12, the lowest ranked of the four Irish provinces, their most scathing criticism coming not from Quinlan but one of their own players. “The boys work so hard,” Francis Saili said, “but there’s no point in working hard if you’re not going to work smart. Sometimes they are like robots and stick to the structures.”

Then, out of nowhere, it was announced that Erasmus was coming in, just before the first of two must-win Pro12 games. To all intents and purposes, the timing of the decision seemed odd. Certainly it appeared to undermine Foley, even though he insisted otherwise.

johan-rassie-erasmus Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Trust me, the lad coming in, hopefully he’s brilliant, comes in and we have a great time together,” Foley said on the day of Erasmus’ announcement. “But you only have a great time if you win.”

For the players, initial confusion about the new chain of command was quickly sorted. “Before Rassie arrived we maybe had a few questions but very quickly, within the first day, he delivered his message, saying this is how it is going to work,” said former Munster player, Mike Sherry. “He was a brilliant communicator; there was never any grey area.”

They’d beat Scarlets on the opening day of the season, then lose to Cardiff by a point the next. Three days later, at the Monday morning review meeting, things started to get interesting.

“I won’t give you any names but he definitely gave some harsh love to a couple of people about their fitness,” says Sherry. “Some coaches might be a bit reluctant to point an issue like that out on a big screen in front of the entire squad but Rassie wasn’t shy.”

The impact was immediate. “You can’t but react to that,” says Sherry. “If the coach was showing it to the whole squad and you were seeing it then you have to act on what he is saying, otherwise you won’t keep up with them.

“Ruthless was a good word to describe him. Like, if you were hurt, you were hurt. He told you to stay down and get your treatment. But when it came to training, he felt there was a difference between being a bit stiff and sore, and actually having an injury.

“Your availability to train was probably his main criteria for selection. That got rid of a cohort of players (and I would have been one of those) who might have been on the sideline nursing a few bangs and bruises from the weekend. You got back out there on a Monday and in time lads actually felt better for that. The train through the pain barrier, it worked.”

It certainly did. A year earlier Munster had lost three successive games in Europe for the first time in their history. That season they’d reach a Champions Cup semi-final, losing to eventual conquerors, Saracens. “When we analysed them we discovered they were by miles the hardest-working team in Europe,” Mark McCall, their director of rugby, said of Munster.

Something deep, much more personal than rugby, drove that.

Part two: Axel

“It is with deep regret that the Irish Rugby Football Union and Munster Rugby must advise of the passing overnight of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley, at the team hotel in Paris.”  Official statement from the IRFU, October 2016.

IT WAS A day when hundreds of Munster fans were lost for words and somewhere to go. They just did not know what to say or do. Not when one of their own had passed away so suddenly and so young and not when they thought about the way it had happened, the ultimate team player dying alone in his sleep.

So, as those Munster supporters, who had made their way across to the French capital for the province’s European Champions Cup match against Racing 92, tried to make sense of it all, they chose to gather just outside the entrance to the Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, Racing’s home ground, before spontaneously singing The Fields of Athenry, a requiem for someone gone. “Gone too soon,” Gregor Townsend, a friend, a rival and a contemporary, said.

No would could dispute that because 42 is no age for any person to die, let alone one whose physical attributes brought him to the elite level of his sport during a career spanning 14 years and 62 caps, Triple Crowns and the Heineken Cup.

munster-fans-gather-to-pay-tribute-to-anthony-foley-the-munster-head-coach-who-passed-away-during-the-night Munster fans paid tribute to Foley in Paris. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That week the Munster players were also in shock. “It was such a tough time,” said Sherry.

What made it even harder was the fact they had a game against Glasgow scheduled for that Saturday. Glasgow at that stage were coached by Townsend and still had Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray. Munster, meanwhile, had a funeral to prepare for on the Friday and a Champions Cup match on the Saturday.

This was when Erasmus’ personality came to the fore, his message getting straight to the point. “The most important thing is to play the game for him (Anthony Foley),” he said.

What followed was remarkable, a stunning display in front of a packed out Thomond Park. Passions ran high, Keith Earls getting red carded with an hour of the game to go. “When Earlsy got sent off against Glasgow, Rassie said: ‘brilliant, we’re going to beat them with 14 men’,” said Fitzgerald. “It was like he knew that the win would look even better with us being a man short. At no stage did he contemplate losing.”

Afterwards, Erasmus deflected attention away: “Listen, they did it for Axel,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. If you’ve got something like that in your heart, when you’re really tired that doesn’t go away. It stays there.”

simon-zebo-keith-earls-and-jack-odonoghue-after-the-game Zebo, Earls and O'Donoghue after the Glasgow game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That became clear over the following months. After Foley’s passing, Munster won 22 of their following 26 games. “He was definitely the right man for the job at the time in terms of the circumstances,” Sherry says. “He couldn’t have dealt with it better. What happened (to Axel) became an incredible motivator for the squad that season. Still, it was a sensitive and delicate topic. The lads (Erasmus and Nienaber) handled it really well.”

A large part of that came down to emotion. But other factors were at play, too.

Part three: Tough love

BOB GELDOF WASN’T the only person who didn’t like Mondays. The entire Munster squad dreaded them, Monday being the day when the previous weekend’s match got dissected.

This is Stephen Fitzgerald’s memory of those review sessions: “Look, Rassie took absolutely no nonsense. He always wanted people to be honest, not to back down. So, if you made a mistake, you admitted it. That was his thing. I remember players having a fear of the Monday review.”

Here is Sherry again: “If you weren’t aligned with them – aligned was their favourite word – you didn’t fit into their plan. I know talent is a huge factor but even if you had ability, if you weren’t on board, it didn’t matter what type of player you were. He’d get someone else who would fit in.”

Another unnamed player, an Irish international, was more succinct, in his recollection of those Monday mornings: “He frightened the shite out of us, simple as that.”

And yet they loved working for him. A year earlier the team had lost its way; now a path back to the top had been found. Munster would top their European pool despite being bottom seeds, beating Racing home and away. They’d beat Toulouse comfortably in the quarter-final, would finish top of the regular Pro12 season, but lose to Saracens in the Champions Cup semi, Scarlets in the Pro12 decider. “Blame me, not the players for that,” said Erasmus afterwards.

rassie-erasmus Erasmus arrives at Thomond Park. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The players didn’t. By their nature, rugby players can be funny creatures. They like discipline, even if they don’t realise it. They want their coach to lead rather than befriend them. Of course the last thing they want is a coach who is on an ego trip, obsessed with himself as well as with power. But there was more to Erasmus than that.

“What I felt about Rassie was he had this amazing ability to say the right thing on the given week; if it was tough love, if it was pointing something out to a player positively or negatively, whatever he said he always seemed to get the right reaction,” said Sherry.

It helped to have the best defence coach in the world alongside him.

Part four: We’re all part of Jacques Army

They are a modern-day, rugby version of Clough and Taylor – Erasmus and Nienaber. From winning Currie Cups with the unheralded Cheetahs, Nienaber would later have success with Western Province at domestic level, and help the Stormers win respect in Super Rugby. The Springboks called next, then Munster. And all the while, he stood side by side with the man he met on military service, Johan Rassie Erasmus.

That 2016/17 season in Limerick saw Munster concede fewer tries — five — than any other side on the path to the Champions Cup semi-finals. They also had, by far, the tightest defence in the PRO12. Miserly in terms of coughing up points, Nienaber was generous with his praise. “A lot of the work was done before I came,” he said. “All those guys, they paid their dues and their school fees last year (under Anthony Foley) and we’re probably reaping the benefits on that.”

This is Sherry’s take: “Jacques was an incredible motivator, not in the sense of Rassie, where there was an element he was the big, bad boss. Jacques was on your side.


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jacques-nienaber Nienaber delivers instructions at training. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“What we liked about him was that if you made a mistake within his system when you were trying to carry out his message, he’d own it in the next meeting. He’d never drop you as a result of that.”

The Nienaber system focused on getting the wingers high on the outside using a more aggressive line speed, and executing choke tackles – with the second man in at lightning speed to add assistance. “That system can potentially leave wingers stranded, in no-mans’ land. But Jacques really filled them with confidence.”

Fitzgerald agrees, saying: “Look at our statistics that year (just 34 tries conceded in the Pro12); we had the best defensive stats of any team. Jacques’ workrate was unbelievable, he was up at 5am every morning, getting his detail and his preparation right. He gave us clarity. So, to be fair, did Rassie.”

Until March, that is. Suddenly clarity was replaced with mixed messages.

Part five: The Long Goodbye

According to the Rapport newspaper, negotiations between SA Rugby and Munster to bring him back to South Africa are at an advanced stage. Three sources reportedly told the publication that Rassie Erasmus’ return is now “a mere formality”.

However, when asked specifically if he expected to be with Munster next season, Erasmus said: “Yes I do. I do. Just because I have a contract with Munster, I will never go outside my contract and outside the clauses and not honour a contract if there isn’t something stipulated there.”

Irish Times, March 2017

This is how it played out. In March, he was staying. April came and went. More questions about his future followed. “I’ll be here next season,” Erasmus said.

That was true. He would – yet only for a chunk of it, not for the entire campaign. An escape clause in his contract allowed him to leave midway through it.

“It was such a disappointment to so many of the players,” says Fitzgerald. “A lot of people who were there a lot longer than me, who had gone through a lot of coaches, rated him highly. I didn’t realise at the time how brilliant he was going to be – winning a World Cup and stuff. I was new into professional rugby. But the lads were gutted, no question.”

rassie-erasmus In the eye of a storm: Erasmus in 2017. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

So were the overwhelming majority of Munster supporters, people who invest their hopes as well as their money into teams, who offer loyalty and expect it in return, even when there is nothing rational about this unwritten arrangement. If, for example, Erasmus was an incompetent coach, fans would not have thought twice about calling for his head.

Yet the fact he is such a clever and talented one was the reason so many wanted him to stay. “Teams adjust and come through situations like this,” Erasmus said in August 2017. “This is a breeze compared to what we had to go through last year [after Foley’s death].

“Blame me for leaving. Not anyone else. I made the decision to go and when I asked them [Munster and the IRFU] they graciously said, ‘Rassie, it’s the national job. Munster aren’t going to stand in your way.’ ”

They didn’t. He returned to South Africa and then returned from the 2019 World Cup with the Web Ellis Cup, Erasmus citing his Munster experience as a crucial finishing school in his coach education.

Meanwhile, back at Thomond Park, the lyrics kept getting updated. It is ten years of hurt and counting. All those oh-so-nears. Wearing them down, through the years.

Could it have been a different story had Erasmus stayed? “He certainly had us on the right road,” said Fitzgerald.

And then he disappeared up the slipway. 

They could have done with him seeing out the journey.

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