IRFU chief executive Philip Browne has revealed Munster head coach Rassie Erasmus told the province he was leaving in March.
Under the terms of his contract with the province, the South Africa Rugby Union-bound coach had to give nine month’s notice to his employers.
Though speculation had surrounded Erasmus’s return home since the start of the year, the former Springbok categorically denied he was going anywhere when asked about the situation in the aftermath of April’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens.
“We’ll be better in a year’s time, and two years’ time and three years’ time,” Erasmus said, before being pushed to clarify that he would be around to lead the team.
“You mean trying to get the winning culture going? “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” You’re definitely staying? “Yes.” That’s the end of the speculation? “I’ve never been speculating about this.”
But Browne, speaking in Dublin after the IRFU revealed a €2.8m deficit in their annual accounts for 2016/17, partly due to financial issues at Munster surrounding the development of Thomond Park, says the decision was made before that, and before Munster’s announcement last month that Erasmus was to leave.
“That would have been earlier in the spring,” said Browne, when asked when Erasmus activated his termination clause.
“There has been lots of contact between us and South Africa, that’s always been the case,” he said.
“There have been conversations from the word go [March]. We know our colleagues in South Africa well, we sit with them at meetings; this isn’t like clubs, this is union to union and we respect each other and we behave accordingly.
“Even internally, within Ireland, that’s been the case. If a national job comes up, generally clubs, provinces will be more than happy to facilitate someone because they understand and realise that it is an opportunity for a coach, possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity to coach, at international level.
“During my time here in the IRFU on any occasion that we have gone to a province for argument sake looking to see if we could get the coach to come across and coach the national team, everyone has been delighted and has facilitated (the overture).
“It’s the same attitude that happens elsewhere around the world. It is a credit to rugby that we take that attitude.”
Former Connacht boss Pat Lam, who left for Bristol this summer, said his six-month termination clause was one of the main reasons he did not stay with the province, but Browne says there won’t be any change to the contracts.
“I found it hard to understand some of Pat Lam’s comments,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that termination clauses in contracts are there for protection not only of the employee but also for the protection of the employer. That’s something that’s negotiated with each coach as they come in and it depends on the risks, associated, the risks they see and equally the risk we might see.
“The reality is it is a protection for everyone. There was a nine-month clause in this particular case, Rassie called it and that’s fine. Yes it’s not ideal but David Nucifora and Garrett Fitzgerald are working very closely together to find someone to come in to take up when Rassie leaves.”
Munster are exploring the possibility of getting a new coach in place before December, but for Browne it’s “a question of getting the right person as opposed to any person”.
On field successes for both Munster and Leinster boosted the IRFUs annual revenue last season, leading to a €2.8m deficit, instead of the planned €4.7m.
Erasmus’s departure may hamper Munster’s ability to follow up last season’s impressive returns, and the timing appears even worse when put alongside the words of honorary treasurer Tom Grace, who said that the current situation where the IRFU bail out the provinces “is not sustainable long term and must be addressed.”
There may be light at the end of that particular tunnel, in the form of an expanded Guinness PRO12 competition, and Browne, a member of the Celtic Rugby board who ultimately decide on the structure of the competition, spoke in positive terms of such a venture.
Celtic Rugby will reportedly meet in Dublin on Tuesday to discuss the inclusion of South African teams Cheetahs and Southern Kings for the coming season. While Browne would not confirm that move, he said change was necessary.
“The one thing I’ll say about the Celtic League, and I’ve been involved since it’s inception in 2001, is that it’s gone through various iterations and each iteration effectively happens at five to midnight; that is the nature of this particular beast,” he said.
“Yes, there are all sorts of potential issues with going to North America, potential issues if South Africa emerge, what you have to do is weigh up those potential issues with the risk of doing nothing.
“The risk of doing nothing with the PRO12 in the long-term is the greater risk.
“We have to have some sort of paradigm change, otherwise we’ll keep doing the same thing and getting the same result and we’ll fall further behind Top 14 and PRL.” Cheetahs and Southern Kings played their last Super Rugby game on Friday, and Cheetahs CEO Harold Verster told South African radio everything is in place for them to make the switch to the PRO12.
He said: “We have negotiated an amicable solution and there is a wonderful opportunity for us up north, for the Cheetahs and Kings.”
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