Donal Lenihan.


Munster’s biggest battle off the field as they need Rassie Erasmus to stay

Munster’s squad needs stability and another two seasons under the watchful eye of the former Springbok, writes Donal Lenihan.

Munster’s biggest battle off the field as they need Rassie Erasmus to stay

Viewed in isolation, Munster’s comprehensive victory over Toulouse last Saturday, securing an incredible 12th European Cup semi-final in 21 years for a province steeped in the tournament’s history, will be viewed by many as a return to the natural order of things.

This current crop of players deserve massive credit for the manner with which they have conducted themselves, on and off the field, in the most trying and demanding of circumstances. It’s bad enough operating in the shadow of the greatest side the province ever produced without also having to deal with the expectation levels of the supporters that linger from the glory days of the noughties.

Saracens underlined their status as tournament favourites by the consummate ease with which they dispatched a Glasgow side full to the brim with players who did a very decent job for Scotland in the recent six nations. In many respects, despite their undisputed quality, playing Saracens in Dublin may well suit the Munster psyche better than travelling to Edinburgh to face a familiar foe in Glasgow.

Saracens will be clear favourites to win that semi-final. The Lions squad to tour New Zealand will be announced earlier that week and the likelihood is that, while Munster will have a minimum of two players in the squad, Sarries will have at least five, heaping even more of a spotlight on them. That will suit Munster just fine.

The only issue that concerns me in the build-up to that mouthwatering decider is completely outside the control of the players. At a time when many within the province should be basking in a job well done and on the significant progress made this season, the uncertainty surrounding the future of Rassie Erasmus has taken the gloss off proceedings somewhat.

In the modern world of professional sport, contracts mean very little. Soccer managers and players sign lucrative, long-term, deals which guarantee nothing. The first time I came across such a scenario in professional rugby was when Brian Ashton was heralded as the saviour of Irish rugby back in 1997 when he was appointed head coach of the national team for an unprecedented six-year term.

Yet within 12 months he was gone. The circumstances surrounding his departure were significantly different to what Erasmus has experienced. Ashton had a vision of how he wanted Ireland to play the game but the players at his disposal didn’t possess the necessary skill set to implement his game plan. The coach wasn’t for changing and was happy to depart the scene.

Erasmus wasn’t quite sure what he was inheriting when he arrived but struck gold in one significant area with the establishment of Munster’s spanking new, state of the art, training facility at the University of Limerick. With the squad now operating from one base, Erasmus was presented with the perfect starting point to get to know and influence his players.

What he found surprised him, with a very decent squad of players eager to learn, well coached and conditioned to that point, but looking to get to the next level. Erasmus has succeeded in lifting standards right across the board and has instilled a new level of confidence and competence in a number of players.

Nine months into his tenure Munster are in the last four in Europe and on the brink of a home semi-final in the Guinness PRO12. The manner with which he handled the impossible situation he found himself in after the death of Anthony Foley has also won him the respect of everyone within the organisation and beyond.

That is why news of his potential return to South Africa is just about the last thing the organisation needs right now. Having had both Rob Penney and Foley as head coach for just two seasons, the squad needs stability and another two seasons under the watchful eye of the former Springbok. South African rugby is in a mess and unfortunately, the more Erasmus achieves in his time at the helm of Munster rugby, the more certain it is that the South African rugby union will want him back.

The one thing in Munster’s favour right now is that SARU had him in situ but failed to offer him the role of national coach when Heyneke Mayer stepped down after the 2015 World Cup. Munster came calling at the right time and offered him the overseas challenge he sought having been overlooked for the job he understandably craves, something Erasmus must recognise.

Even if Munster go on to lift some silverware this season, Erasmus’s job is far from complete. The squad he currently presides over is one he inherited. He is currently in the process of refining that by identifying whose contracts will not be renewed for next season and who he wants to recruit. The signings of Jako Taute and Jean Kleyn have shown how adept he is in identifying talent sitting slightly under the radar which is exactly what you need from your director of rugby.

That recruitment process is continually evolving, the only question mark hanging over it now is, will Erasmus be around to complete the job and reap the benefits? Highlighting the fact that Pat Lam was able to trigger a six-month exit clause to leave Connacht is worrying. That same clause made it so much easier to effect a financial settlement with Ashton when it came to terminating his contract back in 1998 despite the fact that, in theory, it had a number of years left to run.

While it is equally disappointing to be losing a player of Donnacha Ryan’s influence and status, players come and go in big clubs all the time. Ryan has been fantastic for Munster for a long time. That manic intensity he brings to proceedings was first seen to best effect on that brilliant night in Thomond Park against New Zealand back in 2008 and if he does end up in Paris next season, he will be missed.

Right now, however, Munster’s focus should be concentrated on making sure Erasmus remains in place for at least another season. The importance of having an experienced head in the coaching set up is highlighted by the fact that, having failed to come near to progressing from their respective pool last season, Munster and Leinster have both advanced to the last four of elite European competition this time out.

The key element in that has been the arrival of Erasmus in Munster and former England head coach Stuart Lancaster in Leinster. Not only have they had a massive influence on the respective squads but also on the young indigenous coaching group in both provinces.

While we await official confirmation, all indications are that Lancaster has committed his immediate future to the province for the foreseeable future. That is just the boost the Leinster players need as they prepare to knuckle down to what appears an eminently winnable Champions Cup semi-final against Clermont Auvergne, even in France.

A similar declaration of faith from Erasmus would help clear the air and kickstart Munster’s preparations for what will be a massively demanding semi-final decider against Saracens in Dublin.

The last time Munster faced a challenge of this magnitude was Toulouse in Bordeaux in the province’s first ever Heineken Cup semi-final back in 2000. We all remember what happened that day.

The hope now must be that, having experienced the knock out atmosphere of European rugby for the first time, Erasmus will be enticed to hang around to partake in a few more.

The sooner he confirms that will be the case, the better for all concerned even if the sound bites emanating from recent interviews paint a different picture.

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