It was just one week before South Africa played Ireland in Aviva Stadium in November 2017 that Rassie Erasmus bid an emotional farewell to Munster.
“This has been the best 18 months of my life, not just in rugby,” he said, “I will miss the Irish people. It is very hard to leave Ireland and to leave Munster specifically. People have been good to us here. To me and my family and to Jacques Nienaber and his family.”
Dragons were dispatched in style at Musgrave Park in Erasmus’ 42nd and last game in charge of the province, and though he fought back the tears when discussing his departure from the province, the call of South Africa was too much to ignore.
His homeland had been pursuing him for months, and rumours of his return – as director of rugby with the SARU — had swirled around Limerick just months after his arrival in Ireland.
The Boks got their target, eventually, and senior players like captain Peter O’Mahony and scrum-half Conor Murray worried what life would be like without the man who had helped lift the province after Anthony Foley’s shock passing.
Nearly two years on, they have embraced Johann van Graan, another South African voice in the Munster dressing room — but now those players may be worrying about how their World Cup dreams will go, with Erasmus in charge of a resurgent Boks team.
Joe Schmidt all but ended Allister Coetzee’s time as South African coach when Ireland recorded a 38-3 win in 2017, a win so comprehensive, it was hard to imagine the Boks being part of any serious conversation about who might win the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Yet here we are, less than two years on, and the magic touch of Erasmus and Nienaber is back on display. Last weekend’s 46-13 win over Argentina earned the Boks a first Rugby Championship title since 2009, after a recent draw in Wellington and a convincing win over Australia last month.
This follows last year’s second-place finish in the same tournament, which included a first win on New Zealand soil in a decade, and he’s handed out 22 new caps, promoting the likes of exciting trio Aphiwe Dyantyi, Makazole Mapimpi, and Cheslin Kolbe — while taking the historic step of appointing Siya Kolisi as the first black captain of South Africa.
Now, with just weeks to go to the World Cup, the two-time winners are firmly part of the discussion — and someone not surprised at all is a man Erasmus once made his captain.
“I’m not particularly surprised, I really enjoyed being coached by Rassie,” said Peter O’Mahony. “He has a very particular, certain style, so it doesn’t really shock me that he’s done what he’s done.
“He’s brought in a lot more players than they had to pick from back then (2017).
“I had first-hand dealings with Jacques [Nienaber], their defence coach, I think their defence was probably the most outstanding thing of their performance over the (Rugby Championship) series.
O’Mahony didn’t play against Italy on Saturday, giving him more time to take in the Tests involving Ireland’s potential quarter-final opponents.
“Yeah I’ve kept an eye on most of those games,” he said. “It’s no shock, how competitive they all are when it’s coming into the World Cup.
“Obviously Rassie has done a great job with South Africa, there were some seriously impressive performances from them.
“The All Blacks are the All Blacks, and you saw how dangerous Australia were against them last weekend. So it’s going to be unbelievably competitive whoever gets to go and compete, you’d be hard pushed to put your name on a team that would be an out-and-out favourite at the moment.”
O’Mahony will expect Ireland to be in the mix, and this coming week’s training camp in Portugal — the squad fly out this afternoon — will give the Irish players a taster of what it will be like to play in the hotter temperatures expected in Japan.
It won’t replicate the exact humid conditions they will face in Yokohama or Shizuoka, but O’Mahony says the squad took a lot from the 2017 tour in Japan, when Ireland played the hosts twice in as many weeks, in scorching conditions between Tokyo and Shizuoka’s Ecopa Stadium.
“They’ve definitely referenced that tour a fair bit, how they dealt with the different factors over there — the heat, food, hydration, all those type of things have certainly been planned well,” he said.
“It’s certainly going to be difficult. I actually had my U20 World Cup in Japan (2009), we spent three or four weeks there, it wasn’t the same time of the year but it was difficult. But it’s a level playing field because everyone has to do it. So you just have to grin and bear it and get on with it.”
Having seen off Italy with relative ease last weekend, Ireland will play England next before facing Wales home and away.
Is that enough to get the team as battle-hardened as the southern hemisphere sides?
“It’s not like we’re going in with three or four handy ones,” O’Mahony argued.
“Wales are Grand Slam champions, they’d the chance to go to number one, best team in the world, and England — you saw the squad they picked, they’re a seriously impressive side.
“I’ve heard a bit of this rumour that, you know, we’ll be undercooked for the World Cup, but they’re three serious games that we have coming up, England being the first one.”
- Peter O'Mahony was speaking as Marks & Spencer Ireland's first sports ambassador.