“Not in the mix”. That was the definitive reaction of Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus at UL yesterday to reports emanating from back home in South Africa he was in the running to become the next Springbok coach.
He smiled quietly at the question, as if he expected it, but left no room for equivocation: “There is so much speculation with things normally at this time of the year with players, but I just think the South African set-up is obviously going through a little bit of a rough patch which they will definitely get out of, I am pretty sure they will.
“When that happens there is always a lot of speculation around different coaches. I am definitely not in the mix there.”
Given all that has been achieved since his arrival along with his compatriot Jacques Nienaber last summer, it would have been a body blow of enormous proportions to all at Munster had Erasmus been lured home by the top job in South African rugby. Along with Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, they have achieved far more than could have been reasonably expected with the team topping the Guinness PRO12 table and looking forward to a European Champions Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park in April.
“That one is parked now, we know we are in the quarter-finals and how tough that one will be against Toulouse, so it is nice to sort of forget about that for a while now”, he said. “I think the challenge with the PRO12 is to try and stay in that top two, the top four. A lot of happened in this window last year. Connacht won six games in a row and leapfrogged a few teams. You know in a month’s time it can look pretty different. We have to focus and make sure we get mostly wins out of this period.”
While Friday night’s game against Newport Gwent Dragons at Musgrave Park (7.35pm) isn’t regarded as one of the toughest facing Munster in the coming weeks, Erasmus is conscious the visitors won’t be losing too many players to the Welsh national side and so will be close to full strength.
“We’re getting into a block now that is going to be a tough time for us,” he warned. “We have 14 players up in national camp and we’re not sure who we will get back this week. But when you play a team like the Dragons on a Friday after having only one session with the squad and the opposition won’t have a lot of changes and would largely have the same team... We are planning with the idea we are getting nobody back. That’s the best way to do it because you’re never sure with guys doing fitness tests. Their major training session is Tuesday and so we will train with the mind that we have none of the international boys available.”
Ian Keatley finds himself in the unusual situation of being the current second choice out-half for Ireland when he is unable to make the Munster team because of the fine form of Tyler Bleyendaal. With Jonathan Sexton likely to miss the weekend trip to Rome, Keatley will probably stay with the national squad and while Erasmus would like to provide Bleyendaal with a rest, he is delighted for an individual for whom he clearly has a lot of time.
“Ian has done well for us this year. He told me he went through a rough season last year and so it was nice he won games for us this year with drop goals and important penalties. He has helped out at full-back, at 12, even 9. He’s a guy who is always positive and I’m always happy when a player like him gets an opportunity like this.”
It is possible Bleyendaal will still have a breather this week with Erasmus pointing out “Bill Johnston is fit, Dave Johnston is there who can play 10, Rory Scannell is there. Ten will always be a position where if you lose one to the national side, and yours gets injured, you will always be down to a young boy or a third choice coming through.”
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