It was Rassie Erasmus’s charisma as much as his excellent CV that convinced Garrett Fitzgerald he was the right man to become Munster’s first director of rugby, writes Simon Lewis.
Judging by the reaction of Anthony Foley to the South African’s appointment yesterday on a three-year deal that will commence this July 1, the former Springbok captain will apparently need to use buckets of the stuff to convince the head coach there is a future for the relationship.
On a landmark day in the last throes of a dismal season for the province, Foley was effectively demoted to the role of backroom staff member for his third year as head coach, as Munster turned the page and looked forward to a new chapter with the 43-year-old Erasmus at the helm.
A director of rugby job description can be and has been widely interpreted by clubs around the world and Foley offered little clarity as to his view of it yesterday when asked for his interpretation, answering gruffly: “I have asked that question and it’s what the person makes of it, so that is something ye can talk to Garrett about.”
Fitzgerald did have a clear outline of what he expected from his new man, confirming in the press release that confirmed the appointment of Erasmus: “The Director of Rugby role will lead Munster’s senior team, academy and coaches to deliver Munster’s Strategic Plan with ultimate responsibility for team performance and results. The role will have overall responsibility for defining on field strategy and ensuring its implementation.”
Asked to boil the role down even further, Fitzgerald was asked who would be picking the team from next season. “The Director of Rugby,” came the chief executive’s reply, without missing a beat.
The working structure with Foley as head coach underneath Erasmus was the model that was, Fitzgerald said, “the one we felt the best fit for us, and the one that is working well”.
“You have a Director of Rugby, you have a head coach, and you have coaches underneath that. Harlequins is a good example of that, Gloucester is a good example of that.”
Head coach was Foley’s title, he added, “there’s no change. That’s the thing, that’s the head coach. That is the model on which this is designed”.
Foley said he wanted the relationship to work but spoke of the need to see out this season by qualifying for the Champions Cup in the two remaining Pro12 games, starting this Friday night in Cork against Edinburgh.
“Trust me, the lad coming in, hopefully he’s brilliant, comes in and we have a great time together.
“You only have a great time if you win. It is important for us to make sure we’re in a position that we can play European Cup rugby next year under the new regime.”
Yet despite there being a huge change for Foley to accept and in spite of the head coach’s clear discomfort and tetchiness about his demotion, Fitzgerald insisted he was not being undermined, less than six weeks after signing a one-year contract extension.
“We did this in consultation with Axel. I am sure it’s a challenge for himself. He has got a great rugby brain. He has got a rugby coaching ability that has been complimented by everyone that has worked with him. There were some challenges, that came across the desk, especially when results are going against you. You become the focus of a lot more attention. As in accepting for Andy Farrell to come in (as a coaching consultant in January for three months), and he worked very closely with him. But it was good to get someone in with more experience in that area itself.”
At 43, Erasmus is less than a year older than Foley, but has a CV that could not fail to impress Fitzgerald and Munster’s IRFU masters, including Performance Director David Nucifora.
He coached the Free State Cheetahs to a Currie Cup in 2005 and a share of the title in 2006 before becoming that province’s first ever Super Rugby franchise head coach. He also served the Springboks as a technical adviser during their victorious 2007 World Cup-winning campaign.
Erasmus performed the same role four years later before moving into his present high performance role.
“He’s a charismatic man, he’s a great presence,” Fitzgerald said. “You could see straight away he’s a good management ability... to all the work he’s done as a player, as a leader on the field as a coach and what he achieved with the Cheetahs, especially from starting off (as a Super Rugby franchise) and all that.”
It is the sort of experience and personality Munster need to drag them out of the doldrums, entice world-class talent to its playing roster and a new set of coaches, with Foley’s assistants Ian Costello and Mick O’Driscoll already preparing to leave at the end of the season and the futures of Brian Walsh and Jerry Flannery unresolved.
If there is to be a new broom, South African-born back rower CJ Stander believes Erasmus can is perfect to take the reins. “He was the director of Springbok rugby and everyone knows what he has and what he can do, he wasn’t there for not being good, he captained the Springboks and he came through the coaching ranks, so he’s a big deal,” Stander said.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.