'If it's within your skill set and we can score, bloody go for it!' - Erasmus

Munster’s director of rugby tells The42 about his philosophy on the game.

YOU CAN VIVIDLY sense the excitement from Rassie Erasmus ahead of his first season as Munster’s director of rugby.

The South African is only 43-years-old and looks like he could probably still manage himself on the pitch, with a 6’3″ frame, square jaw and big hands lending him a physical authority that has surely been useful in his first summer with the province.

A 36-times capped Springbok in his playing days, Erasmus’ fine coaching reputation precedes him. Currie Cup wins, a consistent period of achievement with the Stormers, a high-powered role in the South African Rugby Union; his CV is strong.

Rassie Erasmus Erasmus has settled in well at Munster. Source: 16/82016

Given his renown as something of an innovator, it will be fascinating to see how Erasmus sets Munster up in attack this season, with his trusted lieutenant Jacques Nienaber – also highly-rated in the coaching world – having taken control of defence.

While Erasmus isn’t going to reveal all of his plans, he stresses that rugby is a basic game, nowhere more so than in attack. His first priority is to build from the set-piece.

“Without giving too much away, if you’ve got a solid scrum you can plan your attack really well,” says Erasmus. “But if you’ve got a scrum under pressure, it’s almost like damage control. We’d like it to have a solid platform for things.

“Lineout is the highest source of tries in all competitions all over the world, so that’s a given. You simply must have a good lineout.

People thought mauling would be nullified with the law changes, but it hasn’t happened. In Super Rugby and the Southern Hemisphere, the lineout maul law was changed, where the ripper can’t move back, he has to move the ball back. There are still a lot of tries in mauls, so that’s still really important.

“Counter-attack is the highest source of scoring points after lineouts, so if any coach was sharp, he would build his plan around those things.

“To sum it up, if the opportunity is there and you don’t have to go through a lot of phases and plans to score a try, have a go within your skill set. You can do that within five metres of your tryline if it’s within your skill set.

“Plan around the things that are obvious ways to allow us to score, which is structure, then in unstructured rugby encourage the players to take the opportunities within their skill sets.”

So, what about those skills sets? In Ireland, we tend to unfavourably compare ourselves to other leading nations in this regard, but Erasmus has been impressed with what he has seen from Munster’s players so far.

Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus Erasmus speaks to his Munster players in Limerick. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

South African rugby has a reputation for its brute force and while Erasmus underlines that as an important aspect of the game, his viewpoint is a littler wider.

“The nice thing about South Africa is that you get these monsters of guys who want contact, but it’s difficult to coach a change after the age of 20,” says the former Cheetahs head coach.

“You don’t change a guy’s habits at the age of 22 or 23; he’s moulded into something. It can be nice in one sense, maybe in wet weather against certain teams, but he tends to stay with that kind of game even when a coach wants to change it.

“In Ireland, what I’ve found is that the players have really good skill sets. They are open to being coached whatever way is best for the team. You have to drive them sometimes to enjoy the physical contact side of things, but you can get that. The nice thing is the good skills.

“The way I played was to be instinctive, to take opportunities. A simple, stupid example is that all the guys nowadays can pass on their left side and pass on their right side. When I was an amateur, I couldn’t!

“So I wouldn’t throw a long pass to my weak side, because we didn’t have time to work on that. What I’m trying to say is that if it’s within your skill set and we can score points from that opportunity, bloody go for it!”

When speaking of the biggest influences on his transition from Springbok into a coach, two figures stand out for Erasmus.

Nick Mallet, his head coach for the Springboks from 1997 until 2000, was key to building Erasmus’ understanding of the sport. The Munster director of rugby won’t ever forget being part of the record-equalling 17-Test winning streak under Mallet in 1997 and 1998.

The other essential influence was former Free State and Golden Cats coach Peet Kleynhans, who had a strong appreciation of the motivational side of rugby.

Nick Mallet Mallet was a key influence on Erasmus. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was a professional game then, but it wasn’t really professional,” says Erasmus of his time under Mallet. “It would be almost like a non-professional side now. In a short space of time, you had to give guys a singular philosophy and I think Nick Mallet was fantastic at that.

“Also, the technical and tactical things he taught me, because he was a eighthman [number eight] himself and that was my position. Nick Mallet was definitely at the top.

“Then with Peet, it was just how you wanted to play for him. Maybe he wasn’t the sharpest technical coach out there, but you never wanted to disappoint him.

“I would like players to have the feeling that we are committed because we don’t want to disappoint one another, not because we are afraid of one another or embarrassed of one another.”

For his part, Erasmus feels that inspiring Munster’s players mentally is going to be straightforward this season, as the director of rugby believes there are solid building blocks in place.

It’s a well-worn mantra, but Erasmus is buying into the Munster spirit.

“We have the history. It’s not something new you have to install in the players, you maybe have to re-ignite it. It’s not something that is a far away dream, it was here even last year.

“The odds were against us, Axel had to get them together and win the last game to qualify for Europe. That was driven from within. What we’re doing currently with Axel and the senior players, I think we’re getting there.

“Results will help, wins will help, but that’s one of the reasons I came to Munster. Everyone from the outside knows about Munster, even when it wasn’t on TV in the old days, when they only showed Test matches. Munster has that special aura, which I wanted to be part of.”

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Erasmus is well known as a keen advocate for deep analysis of the game, and it was an important focus for him in his high performance role with the SARU in recent years.

Rassie Erasmus Erasmus was surprised by the quality of analysis at Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Having set up a highly-organised system for analysing players and tracking playing trends during his time with the South African union, it seemed like an obvious focal point for improvement when he arrived in Munster.

However, Erasmus has been taken aback by the analysis culture that already exists.

“I’ve been cautious not to overload in the beginning,” says Erasmus. “Felix, Axel, Jerry and Jacques, they are all very technical and the players are very technical, doing self-analysis and technical analysis, asking a lot of questions.

“I thought when I was coming here that it was something I was going to push really hard, but because that’s at a level that’s already up there, it would almost be overkill to do more work.

“As the games come and we start analysing opposition, we’ll throw our weight in to make sure we know our opposition inside out, but there is a culture here of doing a lot of technical analysis. I don’t want the important stuff to get cluttered.”

Overall, Erasmus feels the Munster project is “aligned” coming into the new Guinness Pro12 season, which begins away to the Scarlets on Saturday. He’s confident that the players and coaches view the game in the same way.

Back at home in South Africa, some of Erasmus’ most innovative and boundary-pushing coaching moves are well remembered.

He will never live down the use of coloured lights on the roof of the Cheetahs’ stadium to communicate calls in-play. Erasmus remains of the belief that creativity is important in his coaching approach, but any new masterstrokes of this nature will have to wait.

“It’s always been part of my relative success that I’ve had,” says Erasmus. “But before you can get to that creative side of things, you must get the team 100% aligned in the way we do things.

“You can’t just do funny, weird, creative things when you don’t have the base of philosophy and work ethic and the cause and why we’re doing this. If we’ve got that baseline, then there’s space for doing creative things.

“There are so many things that we would like to implement and do now, but I feel that as a group we must get some solidness about us and just play a few games with that mindset. There are so many things we can tweak and I think the players will enjoy, but if you throw it in now, it will almost confuse them.

“There are exciting times ahead when you look at that, but we must get up to that standard we’ve agreed on, transfer it to the pitch. Then, there’s a lot of things we want to implement.”

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Murray Kinsella

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