Rassie Erasmus may have a higher profile on Twitter these days than he did when he was the Munster boss but Conor Murray imagines he and Jacques Nienaber are still playing the bad cop-good cop routine in the South Africa camp.
Murray worked with the Springbok coaching duo when Erasmus was Munster’s director of rugby and Nienaber the defence coach between the summer of 2016 and their exit to return home 17 months into their three-year deals in November 2017.
It was a tumultuous time, Erasmus steering the province through the shock of head coach Anthony Foley’s sudden death in Paris in October 2016 and guiding Munster to a Champions Cup semi-final and PRO12 final.
Yet there has been little opportunity to catch up on this British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, with Nienaber succeeding World Cup-winning boss Erasmus as the Springboks head coach as his friend moved upstairs to become SA Rugby’s director of rugby.
Murray, speaking to journalists covering the tour from Cape Town this week, was reluctant to compare coaching styles between Erasmus and Lions head coach Warren Gatland, who on Tuesday recalled the scrum-half to his starting line-up for Saturday’s second Test, although he did joke: “One’s very good on Twitter lately! They’re very different. I’ve experienced both and they’re quite different characters.
“They’re two very good coaches with the success they’ve had but they’re two very different people. I’m not going to go into too many details — I’m playing under Warren at the moment and really enjoying it.”
Yet the Ireland star did discuss the Erasmus-Nienaber coaching dynamic at length.
“Yeah, good cop, bad cop,” Murray, 32, said. “Rassie was tough and there was definitely a time and a place for that toughness at Munster and then Jacques, yeah, he was the good cop. They kind of worked in tandem like that. That’s why they’re such a good team. I think they bounce well off each other.
“If Rassie would have a go off anyone in the changing room then Jacques would probably have a quiet word and tell them what Rassie actually meant and that it was coming from a good place.
“I don’t know how it works with South Africa at the moment but they’ve known each other for years and years and years.
“They think about the game of rugby quite deeply so they’ll be putting their heads together and coming up with a plan for this weekend.”
Asked to go into detail about Erasmus’s toughness, Murray added: “He was a tough player, he expected toughness from his players. Going back to that physicality side of things, if it ever lacked or somebody shied away from it, they would be told.
“So again, we’re fully aware of what will come out of the tunnel on Saturday and we’ve got to meet it.”
Murray said he was never in the firing line of an Erasmus outburst, although he said: ”There’s memorable ones in my head. But they were inside Munster’s four walls.”
Murray said he enjoyed a positive, happy relationship with both coaches though the roles they played, with Erasmus picking the Munster team, meant he felt closer to Nienaber.
“I was chatting to Jacques on the halfway line in the warm-up (for the first Test) last week, just briefly.
“I hadn’t seen him in a long time and he would always be a guy to text me, Munster games, Irish games. And Rassie, in the A game he was running water so there was a bit of chat there but nothing nasty, just pleasantries.”
It will no doubt be the same this Saturday with the Lions 1-0 up and the Springboks desperate to stay alive in the series.
“Like any coach, after a defeat like that, he’s going to try to pick his squad up and emotionally fire them up. Exactly what he’s saying to them behind closed doors, nobody knows. Rassie can say a lot of things, but he’ll certainly have a really definite plan of how they want to come out and attack the game.
“Rassie can surprise you at times too so we’ve got to be ready for anything…
“Going 1-0 down is tough for them. It’s brilliant for us, but it doesn’t take away from how close that first game was. It was really close and we did well to pull away and win it. We took our opportunities and we defended quite well, especially in that last passage of play.
‘It’s going to be a really close Test match again.
“We have to be prepared for a few surprises because Rassie and Jacques like to think about the game very deeply so they’re going to be looking at everything we are doing.”