Early days but Erasmus can be pleased as clock ticks on tenure

There will be more searching examinations this season of Munster’s Guinness PRO14 title credentials than those posed by Benetton Rugby last Friday in Cork but as opening-night performances go, there was much from which Rassie Erasmus could take pleasure.

Early days but Erasmus can be pleased as clock ticks on tenure

With a try bonus point in the bag just 31 minutes into the new campaign, the essential object of the exercise was accomplished comfortably in what would be a five-try first half at Musgrave Park.

There will be disappointment Munster dropped off in intensity after the interval yet in dispatching a surprisingly tame Treviso side 34-3 to take maximum points, Erasmus was satisfied his final campaign as director of rugby got off to an encouraging start.

The clock is ticking on his departure following his decision, taken just nine months into his three-year deal last March but only announced on June 30, to jump ship and return to his management role at the South African Rugby Union.

There is a December cut-off if no suitable replacement can be found in the interim, but Erasmus at least appears committed to continuing his programme of improvement at the province and leaving Munster in the best possible position he can.

The Cheetahs visit Thomond Park this Saturday to provide a much sterner challenge than the Italians, but on the evidence of Friday night, the lessons of last season’s critical defeats to both Saracens, in the Champions Cup semi-final, and Scarlets in the PRO12 final, have been taken on board.

Munster’s lack of creativity in offence was sorely exposed in those Aviva Stadium games and with Felix Jones promoted to an enhanced role as attack and backline coach over the summer there were clear signs of a commitment to keeping the ball alive with an offload game rather than the predictable and overused one-out rugby that allowed defences to reorganise in relative comfort and keep Munster behind the gainline.

Munster’s first two tries of the night came through patient multi-phase play, finished by lock Jean Kleyn and Tyler Bleyendaal respectively but the third and fourth scores saw Munster hit their straps through wings Darren Sweetnam, and Alex Wootton, the latter courtesy of an excellent counter-attack by full-back Andrew Conway from inside his own half, the ball offloaded from the ground from near the visitors’ 22 before being shifted wide left for a try in the corner.

Erasmus acknowledged offloading and defending against it had been a focal point in pre-season but emphasised it was still very much a work in progress.

“That’s good that you saw that,” he said. “Treviso are also a team that did an awful lot of work there. Because we practised that, it was maybe easier to stop their off-loading game because we have been working hard.

“Some of them didn’t work for us. We will have to find that balance where it doesn’t become too scrappy and keep the structure and keep on doing the things that worked for us last year while evolving.”

Erasmus also praised the progress made by Munster’s academy players, with loosehead prop Liam O’Connor and blindside flanker Sean O’Connor both making impressive first starts at the weekend alongside new signings Chris Farrell at outside centre, while former England U20 tighthead Ciaran Parker, signed 10 days earlier from Sale Sharks, and scrum-half James Hart had debuts off the bench.

The integration of the academy players into the senior team was a testament to the IRFU’s player development structures, Erasmus said as he praised their performances.

“Sean O’Connor and Brian Scott, all of the guys, I must just compliment the Irish overall. Their academy system, the fundamentals that they learn and the way they approach the academy where it isn’t necessarily a team playing but more developing players into a final product that you can use at this level.

“I definitely have to compliment the way (IRFU performance director) David Nucifora and the guys plan that academy. Obviously, the Munster boys work really hard under Peter (Malone), you can take a player like that and you actually just have to work on his tactical stuff and your game-plan because the fundamentals he can do.

“And Sean (O’Connor) playing blindside for 50 minutes and then going to five, lock, and organising the line-outs. And then Fineen Wycherley coming in for Jean Kleyn, same story. It’s testament to the system and especially the way the Munster boys do it.”

The youngsters would not be overexposed, Erasmus stressed, but it was important they continued to lay down foundations in the company of more experienced players.

“The academy guys will obviously give you agility, speed, enthusiasm but they won’t give you experience, big-match temperament. They will grow into that. But in the big games, you need the guys who have done it. Sometimes it looks weird but a guy like Liam O’Connor in three years time will be 24 and then maybe have 50 caps under his belt. And then he is the guy that will win you that championship with the last turnover scrum. But while doing that you must make sure that (new signings,) the James Harts and the JJ Hanrahans and those guys come in to secure more experience in the squad.”

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