When Erasmus started a professional playing career in 1996 that would be rewarded with 36 Test appearances in South Africa’s back row, it was in Bloemfontein with Free State, a team that would become the Cheetahs, whose evolution has now brought them to the Guinness PRO14 and a trip to Thomond Park tomorrow.
He would spend time at other provinces and represent the Cats in Super Rugby between 1998 and 2002 but it was back in Bloemfontein that Erasmus played out the final years of his career while learning the ropes as a fledgling coach, eventually taking the reins of the Cheetahs’
Currie Cup side and leading them to glory in 2005, his first season in charge.
The crown was shared with the Blue Bulls the following year and Erasmus, aged just 33, was named as the inaugural head coach of the Cheetahs’ Super Rugby franchise.
Yet the former Springbok’s relationship with the PRO14 newcomers goes deeper than the professional resumé and when the Cheetahs, led by head coach Rory Duncan, travelled south from Belfast following their first-round defeat to Ulster last Friday, there was more than just a courtesy call between coaches, it was a reunion of old and close friends.
Erasmus will soon effectively be the Cheetahs management’s ultimate boss when he leaves Munster and returns home to South Africa no later than December 31 to become the union’s director of rugby.
Yet the bonds renewed this week have been such that he is hopeful similar emotions will be stirred when Munster travel to Bloemfontein for the return fixture in April.
“When I leave Munster, I would really like to leave here in the way I left the Cheetahs,” Erasmus said on Monday as he looked ahead with relish to tomorrow’s game.
“When I spoke to the guys last night when they arrived here at the hotel, it was as my close friends. There’s guys who were at my wedding, some of them were my groomsmen, some of them
organised the wedding, so I know the guys really, really well. That is what I am saying.... when I leave Munster and they come (to South Africa) next April, that is the way I would want to be with Munster.
“It’s exciting. It is not emotional (playing against them). It is nice.”
Not so nice that Erasmus’s team will roll out the red carpet tomorrow for a team packed with Super Rugby experience and which, despite losing 42-19 at Ravenhill last Friday and exhibiting defensive naivety, showed they possess plenty of cutting edge going forward
The former Cheetahs coach is also well aware that his former charges will be gunning for Munster’s scalp this weekend.
“I can tell you so many stories about them, but the head coach (Duncan), I coached him, was the lock in the Currie Cup. His lineout coach (Corniel van Zyl) was his partner lock. The scrum coach (Daan Human) I coached, and played with most of those guys and coached many of them. It will be a really tough challenge.”
All the tougher now the Cheetahs have a game under their belts, Erasmus believes, though he is not expecting them to tighten up their expansive gameplan.
“That is the way they play. They play a very high risk, high reward game and they won’t change. That is why their name is the Cheetahs. I remember when we had to get a name when we went from Currie Cup rugby to Super Rugby. Everyone just said ‘Cheetahs’ because they run and they run very fast. That is how they got their name, so they will never change that and it’s exciting.
“Even against Ulster, if two or three of those tries stick for them, it could have been 42-41, that is the way they play rugby. That is what we will face on Saturday. They will settle in and get better and better. This week they will be much better, getting accustomed to the referee interpretations, getting used to playing in rainy weather and so on.
“The small things when you are away, lineouts here get called in a huddle that doesn’t happen in the southern hemisphere.
”There are a lot of small things that are different that really doesn’t change your game but they sometimes surprise you. I think they will fix most of those things from game one for this game, game two. With every match they will just get better.”