Rassie Erasmus has sent a shockwave through Munster Rugby by choosing not to unequivocally shoot down speculation he is in talks with South African Rugby about a return to his previous role as high performance manager in his homeland, writes Simon Lewis.
The coach became Munster’s first director of rugby last summer and, in signing a three-year contract, left behind his high-ranking role, the equivalent of which at the IRFU is held by David Nucifora as performance director.
His arrival has brought dividends in a remarkable campaign punctuated by the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley. The province has rediscovered its mojo, has lost just four times this season, and had a ninth league win away from home at the weekend, which sees them sitting pretty in second place in the Guinness Pro12 with four rounds to go.
This Saturday they will be playing their first European knockout game, when Toulouse arrive at Thomond Park for a sell-out Champions Cup quarter-final.
Things could not be going better, at least until reports came out of his native South Africa over the weekend that Erasmus was set for a return, after just one year of his Irish adventure.
Yesterday’s media day ahead of the Toulouse showdown gave Erasmus the chance to nip that one in the bud, as he did several weeks ago when South Africa’s head coach’s job was thought to become vacant. Yet the 44-year-old former Springbok flanker who says “we” when referring to Ireland could not have been more equivocal in his response to the inevitable question about his future.
Addressing the reports, Erasmus said: “I have been talking to them for the last... since I have been here. I have been living there and coaching there the last 16 years and I know the guys really well.
“There have been some formal and informal chats you know and, as I said last time when they talked about the coaching position, I wasn’t in the mix and I wasn’t in the mix last time.
“This is such a big week, where all the chat that I had with them was really informal. And I am just parking that now, focusing on this quarter-final and not let my situation become something in a big week like this. I have a three-year contract with the IRFU and then speculation like that just gets the focus away from the team on a big, big occasion.”
Asked outright whether he expected to be at Munster next season, Erasmus again made a qualified statement, saying: “Yes I do. I do. Just because I have a contract with Munster, I will never go outside my contract and outside the clauses and not honour a contract if there isn’t something stipulated there.”
Talking to RTÉ he added: “I have got a standard IRFU contract. Obviously there are some clauses there, the same as Pat Lam had in his contract, but otherwise it’s the standard IRFU contract.”
That Lam is leaving Connacht to join Bristol at the end of the season does hardly bode well, though, the reference is understood to infer to the New Zealander’s requirement to give six months’ notice to quit the westerners, something that might delay any potential exit by Erasmus beyond this summer.
Even allowing for the fact that Afrikaans, not English, is the native tongue of Erasmus, it would have been more reassuring for Munster supporters to hear him say he was committed to their cause, and seeing out his contract and had every intention to finish the job he has just started.
Instead, he has ensured the subject will not go away.
During the same media session at Munster’s high performance centre in Limerick, Erasmus also had to deal with the future of one of his most experienced and influential players, Donnacha Ryan, whom the Irish Examiner revealed last Saturday had signed a two-year contract with reigning European champions Racing 92.
Confirming that the 33-year-old would be leaving his home province after 13 years, Erasmus said Munster had been unable to make the second row a good enough offer, once the IRFU had decided not to renew his central contract.
“I guess if we had more money, then we could have kept him,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of Donnacha chasing money. I think the tough situation for a guy like him, he is 33 years old. I don’t want to speak on behalf of him, I’m sure he will say the same when you get to chat him. He has probably got one big contract left in him. Rugby players just have a short-ish lifespan, earning enough money.
“We gave him an offer of two years and obviously a team like Racing has got more money, and I think he had to make a career decision, which has not been confirmed yet.
“Obviously, when he loses his national contract, the whole cost comes back to Munster, which unfortunately we can’t afford to try and match that. He knows we wanted to keep him and we really tried our best.”
Munster will be facing a serious loss of experience from their pack and a lack of depth in their second-row stocks, given that fellow lock Dave Foley last week announced his decision to join Racing’s Top14 rivals Pau for next season.
“We will be thin at second row and we will have to make a few plans there,” said Erasmus. “If you just think, Mark Chisholm hasn’t played for a while [concussion] and his contract comes up at the end of June. Dave Foley has moved on. Jean Kleyn is going through a serious neck injury, he will be out for a few months. Billy [Holland] will always be there, Billy is fit, he’s always available.
“Then, there’s some young guys coming through, like Darren O’Shea, but we’ll have to bolster the squad for next year, that’s definitely one of the positions we’re a bit thinner.”
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