Gerry Thornley: Rassie Erasmus shows us that in rugby, class isn’t always permanent

South Africa’s director of rugby is a worried man if his tactics are anything to go by

South Africa director of rugby  Rassie Erasmus speaks to Bongi Mbonambi and Faf de Klerk on the pitch  during the first Test in Cape Town as Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones passes behind him. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus speaks to Bongi Mbonambi and Faf de Klerk on the pitch during the first Test in Cape Town as Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones passes behind him. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

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When it was announced in the summer of 2017 that Rassie Erasmus would be stepping down as Munster’s director of rugby the following December, effectively halfway through his three-year contract, there was universal disappointment within the province, among players, fellow coaches and supporters alike, but an understanding that his native land had come calling.

Within a few months of his arrival for the 2016-17 season, the province had been rocked to its core by the tragic loss of Anthony Foley, after which Erasmus proved a dignified front on behalf of Munster.

They also regrouped and won 23 of their remaining 25 matches that season, if coming up short in the Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens and in the Pro 12 final against the Scarlets, both at the Aviva Stadium.

However, it wasn’t just the way Erasmus proved such a steadying hand and oversaw such a compelling response on the pitch, it was the classy way he conducted himself at all times.

There was a remainder of that Erasmus when he sent a direct tweet to the Lions last Saturday congratulating them. “No excuses this side! You are far away from home, families and going through same tough Covid protocols like we do! Congrats and well deserved!”

His rather rabid, and tacky, use of social media is worse, for it shows even less respect for the match officials, the opposition and the game

Alas, if only he’d left it that. Class, it would seem, is not always permanent.

Of course, the public persona and the private Erasmus are not necessarily the same. Erasmus has a cold-eyed steeliness and winning mentality, all the more so when coaching his native Springboks, which was all captivatingly evident in the Chasing the Sun documentary.

It was disappointing to hear him tell his players before the World Cup semi-final that the Welsh “are not softies – they’re not like Ireland” if only because he might have thought that way about the Munster players he coached. But so be it. Coaches say plenty in dressingrooms and very little of it is aired on documentaries or made public.

However, save for that one gracious tweet to the Lions on Saturday, Erasmus's use of both his official twitter account, and a laughably suspicious burner account by the name of ‘Jaco Johan’, has arguably seen coaching grievances and behaviour taken to all-time low.

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For Erasmus and the Springboks to find a loophole in the laws which permits him to run on to a pitch as a waterboy without the water, but with an earpiece and microphone, may be technically permissible. And, of course, messages are conveyed through waterboys all the time, be it non-playing players or whomever.

But it’s a poor look for the sport, and frankly for Erasmus himself, and the Springboks.

His rather rabid, and tacky, use of social media is worse, for it shows even less respect for the match officials, the opposition and the game. There are very accessible official channels for Erasmus and Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber to go through. The tweets are a little pathetic.

Leicester number eight Jasper Wiese could be in line to play for South Africa in the second Test against the Lions on Saturday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Leicester number eight Jasper Wiese could be in line to play for South Africa in the second Test against the Lions on Saturday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

What is it about the Lions that makes some in the host countries think all bets are off? Think back to the distorted treatment of Warren Gatland in his native New Zealand by some of the Kiwi media four years ago. One always felt that the All Blacks management could have been a little more condemnatory about that too. It demeaned the sport.

In any event, for a World Cup-winning coach to be behaving like Erasmus has been doing is very undignified. Could you imagine Gatland lowering himself to those standards, running on to the pitch as a waterboy, or taking to Twitter to highlight foul play by the opposition? Or any director of rugby or head coach for that matter?

Erasmus initially returned to South Africa as director of rugby in December 2017 before assuming the role of head coach when Allister Coetzee was sacked within two months. Quelle surprise! The former role was never filled in his near two years as head coach, during which time Erasmus guided the Springboks to the World Cup before returning to his role as director of rugby, with Nienaber promoted from defence coach to head coach.

[His antics] suggest Erasmus is a worried man, and is resorting to fairly desperate and shoddy off-field tactics, with the Springboks cornered and in win-at-all-costs mode

Erasmus formally stepped in as acting head coach of the South African A side against the Lions after Nienaber tested positive for Covid, but his antics since then suggest he’s still very much the man in charge.

They also suggest Erasmus is a worried man, and is resorting to fairly desperate and shoddy off-field tactics, with the Springboks cornered and in win-at-all-costs mode. As they showed after losing their opening game against the All Blacks in the World Cup that can be when they’re at the most dangerous.

But while the Boks will surely benefit from last Saturday’s game when effectively still recovering from the inevitably debilitating effects of Covid in their camp and a lack of match practice, they’ve always been fairly restrictive, if effective, in how they play.

They ain’t going to reinvent the wheel in a week. All they can be is even more physical and direct, which they no doubt will be.

Nonetheless, there are likely to be tweaks (and perhaps more tweets) with a place to be found for the abrasive Leicester number eight Jasper Wiese and, perhaps, a return to the 6-2 Bomb Squad bench. Like the Lions, the Boks have also brought forward their team announcement to Tuesday.

Gatland and co are liable to tweak too, not least as it sends out a message to the rest of the squad to stay on board, that the Test ‘23’ is not a closed shop. After all, a win next Saturday would afford Gatland the opportunity to use the entire squad in the Test series.

Given Elliot Daly’s mixed game in the first Test, there are options for a rejigged midfield, be it reuniting Bundee Aki with Robbie Henshaw, or promoting Chris Harris, in order to meet the Boks head-on at the gainline. There must also be a case for restoring Liam Williams to the back three to provide more security against another inevitable aerial bombardment.

Ironically, Conor Murray’s steadying performance in the final quarter may convince Gatland and the coaches that he might again be best employed in closing out the match.

As for the pack, the same may be true of Ken Owens at hooker, with most and possibly all of the starting eight worthy of another shot. The Welsh/UK clamour to have Taulupe Faletau recalled at the expense of Jack Conan is hard to justify based on Conan’s performance in the first Test, or in general, until now.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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