Rassie Erasmus more than a steady hand at Munster’s tiller

South African has brought emotional intelligence as well as a razor-sharp rugby brain

As the figurehead of the Munster organisation this season, Rassie Erasmus has handled himself with dignity and class at all times, hardly putting a foot or a word wrong.

He has embraced the methods and memory of Anthony Foley with whom it was clear – and insiders confirm as much – he had built a genuinely close and fruitful coaching relationship in their all too short time working together, despite Erasmus having effectively been brought in to usurp the head coach. And this worked both ways.

Erasmus was distraught over Foley's death, and in a recent interview Jerry Flannery said how this helped the squad come to terms with the loss of their teammate-cum-coach. Indeed, when the squad were informed of the shocking news in their Parisian hotel at lunchtime on the day of their originally scheduled fixture with Racing, it was Erasmus's assistant and fellow South African Jacques Nienaber who immediately said under no circumstances could they play the game.

Erasmus is evidently not your archetypal South African. Aside from his rugby knowledge and absolute love of the game, those inside the Munster set-up talk of his emotional intelligence as well.

He can be ruthless too, as all directors of rugby or head coaches need to be, but this is always first and foremost for the good of the team. He knows what he wants from all his staff and while always maintaining a coach/player relationship, he remains approachable.

In all of this he is straight and honest, and his genuine desire to adhere to Foley’s principles – witness his description of last week’s game plan being exactly as how he and Foley had discussed the day before the postponed fixture with Racing – Erasmus is not being manipulative in order to achieve results. It is to ensure that Foley’s “presence” as head coach remains.

Discernible upturn

In the process, Erasmus has deflected much of the credit for Munster's improvement this season, and while this has been most stark since Foley's passing, and the subsequent sequence of 10 wins in 11 games, there had been a discernible upturn in optimism and form since the beginning of his stewardship. Yet, to have to deal with the tragedy within four months of his arrival cannot have been easy.

"Yes, it was tough times at times but the team is pretty emotionally intelligent and mature," he said after last week's win in Paris. "If you look at their ages they are really young but I think this whole episode, if I can put it that way, as a team they have done really well.

“Sometimes, for me, they have made it easy. I could see that right off, them trying to make it easier for me. I saw them do things where I think they were sometimes concerned for me and sometimes I was concerned for them. So I really think that everybody, not just the team management and outside management, I think it was definitely a team effort. It was not one guy saying ‘this is how we are going to do it as a team.’ We made most decisions as a group.”

After last week’s defeat to Munster, their one-time outhalf and current Racing coach Ronan O’Gara referred to the “brilliant coaching” his former province are now benefitting from, and he was particularly struck by their attention to detail under Erasmus.

This is, perhaps, most evident in attack. For Jaco Taute's try against Glasgow at Thomond Park in October, when David Kilcoyne trucks it up and Peter O'Mahony and Jean Kleyn complete the clear-out, Munster are perfectly aligned, with a three and three behind. Tyler Bleyendaal pulls the pass back for Rory Scannell, coming onto the ball from behind, who links with Taute for a well-executed try with Keith Earls to spare on the outside.

Landmark try

Similarly, take Simon Zebo's landmark try last week, Munster's first on the day, their 400th in the competition and the fullback's 50th for his province.

From a scrum, Scannell takes Conor Murray's flat pass steps onto the inside shoulder, for Taute and Tommy O'Donnell to complete a perfect two-man clear-out coming from either side. Then O'Mahony trucks up Murray's pass, with Bleyendaal and Donnacha Ryan completing the clear-out from either side. Then Murray skip passes Niall Scannell, who feints to take the ball but lets it go past him, doing enough to keep the inside defenders honest and check Anthony Tuitavke in giving Zebo a two-on-two. Zebo steps off his right foot and twists in the tackle from Tuitavke to score. Simple, detailed and accurate.

A clever, skilled backrow as opposed to the more traditionally direct and physical flankers to come from South Africa, Erasmus won 36 caps for the Springboks while playing for the Free State Cheetahs and the Golden Lions provincially, and for the Cats and the Stormers in the Super 12.

As captain of the Cats, he led them to the 2000 Super 12 semi-finals, and also captained the Springboks in 1999, albeit turning it down on a long-term basis as he felt he was too young and inexperienced for the role.

Erasmus says the two biggest influences on his career were Nick Mallet, his head coach for the Springboks from 1997 until 2000, and his coach with Free State and the Golden Cats, Peet Kleynhans. After making his Sprinbgoks' debut in the final, dead rubber of the 1997 Lions Test series in South Africa, which the Boks won 35-16, Erasmus was a near ever-present in the record-equalling 17-Test winning streak under Mallet in 1997 and 1998. Indeed, he was on the winning side in his first 16 Tests.

“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 an eighth man [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.”

Matthew Pearce, a sports presenter with SuperSport TV in South Africa, has revealed that Mallett, in turn, “has said unequivocally that, as a player, he [Erasmus] was the finest rugby mind he ever coached. He was never lacking in confidence to come forward with ideas when playing under Nick with the Springboks and was always willing to innovate and come up with new strategies. There are few better compliments than that”.

Successful move

It was thus no surprise to Mallett or many others that Erasmus made a swift and successful move into coaching and immediately guided the Cheetahs to Currie Cup glory in 2005 – the Bloemfontein-based team's first Currie Cup title since 1976. The following year, the Cheetahs shared the Currie Cup trophy with the Blue Bulls and he also became the first coach of the Cheetahs Super Rugby franchise when they were accepted into the Super 14 in 2006.

In 2007, the Eastern Cape native served as technical adviser for the Springboks during their World Cup-winning campaign in France before becoming head coach of the Stormers and director of coaching at Western Province.

The Stormers had finished ninth, 11th and 10th in the preceding three years, but under Erasmus had a revival, finishing fifth in the 2009 Super Rugby and only missing out on the play-offs on points’ difference. After a disappointing 2010, they recruited and regrouped, finishing second for two successive years and then first, but lost the final to the Bulls and successive semi-finals to the Crusaders and Sharks.

Erasmus served a second term as technical adviser to the Springboks during the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand before assuming the general manager high performance role with the South African union. He was regarded as a strong contender to succeed Heyneke Meyer but after Allister Coetzee was appointed, Erasmus accepted Munster's offer of a three-year deal to become director of rugby. Erasmus's first key signing was Jacques Nienaber. The two have been friends ever since they did military service in the South African army together.

“He was one of our top graduates,” recalls Nienaber. “He was quite good at the army, and he stayed on another year, and when he then came to the university and started playing for the university, we met again.”

The two men worked together when Erasmus was player and captain, and Nienaber physio, at the Cheetahs and Cats. Whereupon, when Erasmus became the head coach of Western Province and the Stormers in 2008, he persuaded Nienaber to become his defence coach with Western Province and the Stormers, a role he would also fulfil with the Springboks.

Perfect balance

"We work well together," says Nienaber. "We're good friends, but I think we have the perfect balance. At work, it's nice and professional. I don't think he would treat me differently from anyone else. We always say whenever we disagree on the pitch or at work, it's never personal. We just want to get it right. But yes, we're great mates, and he's been very good to me."

The players have clearly bought into their defensive system under Nienaber, communicating and working together at all times, using a more aggressive line speed, and executing choke tackles – with the second man in at lightning speed – to great effect again last week despite the new directive from World Rugby.   Under Eramsus, Munster have tried not to overcomplicate things, as was particularly evident in the controlled, clinical, low-risk dissection of Racing in Paris last Saturday.

Discussing this, Alan Quinlan also stated on Sky Sports: "I think Rassie Erasmus has been a class act the way he's handled the whole thing. He was only in there a short time when this happened and I think he's handled it so well and got the players to focus on the performance and trying to go out and win matches. And that's what Axel always wanted to do, go out and win, compete and fight for a result."

During last Saturday’s match, when the camera panned in on Erasmus in the stand, commentator Miles Harrison said: “He has received so many plaudits for the way he’s handled the situation at Munster this season; a desperate situation.”

To this, Stuart Barnes added: "A lot of dignity and a lot of gravitas. An intelligent man and a good man as well."