Rassie Erasmus has dismissed the idea that his impending departure leaves Munster in limbo approaching the new season but accepts that some supporters would be justified in feeling let down by his decision to return to South Africa.
The 44-year old will return home to take up a new director of rugby role in the coming months — at a date yet to be decided — leaving behind a province he joined only a year ago and one which experienced a rollercoaster of emotions during his first term in charge.
“We’re definitely not in limbo. We’re playing our first game next week and we’re much better prepared than last year,” he claimed. “But of course there will be a transition phase somewhere in the next weeks and months so we’ll have to manage it as best we can.”
Changing head coaches mid-stream is not a scenario normally associated with successful campaigns and, while CJ Stander made predictable noises about the need for the players to front up, those staying on are being asked a hell of a lot.
The main criticism directed at Erasmus after his first season in charge was a predictable attack that was all too easily countered by Saracens and Scarlets in the closing stages of the Champions Cup and PRO12, as the latter was then.
Can progress really be made there with a coach who is moving on?
“After the last game against Scarlets we did a week’s wash-up on what we want to achieve this season and talked about the six games we lost last season: That we wanted to win more games and try and win a title and plan the areas of the game we wanted to work on.
“We planned each week of conditioning up until yesterday’s coaching session. Everyone — Jerry (Flannery), Felix (Jones) and the conditioning coaches and the analysts — had a role in that. The challenge is to ensure that when the new coach comes in that those thoughts are aligned.”
The long list of players signed for the new season— including JJ Hanrahan and Chris Farrell — was rattled off as evidence of the club’s well-being. So too the fact Jones had already begun to take on a much more hands-on role towards the end of the last campaign.
That process is obviously being ramped up now but, while there have been reports that Jones is to be installed as head coach in a temporary capacity, Erasmus spoke only of a worldwide recruitment process while reiterating the fact he would stay around as long as required.
It’s hard not to see it all as treading water.
Speaking at yesterday’s Guinness PRO14 launch at the Aviva Stadium, Erasmus covered much of the same ground from the statement quoting him at length on the Munster website the day before but the exact timeline leading up to his quit notice remains blurred.
IRFU CEO Philip Browne said in July that Erasmus had informed the union of his intention to leave as far back as March. The coach himself, as well as Niall Scannell, told media in April that he was staying and news of his decision to retrace his steps home actually broke in June.
“Prior to March, I went to speak to them about this speculation,” Erasmus explained. “‘Boys, we’re not going to talk about this all the time while we are in this competition’. I said to them before that this might come and we’ll handle it then.”
Browne opted against speaking to media at yesterday’s launch but, whatever the train of events, the South African’s final destination — and that of his defence coach Jacques Nienaber who goes with him — isn’t up for debate.
Erasmus admitted to a feeling of embarrassment when it came to the players he had lured to Limerick only to hand in his notice before some got to play a game, but he insisted the feedback from them, old hands, and supporters alike has been wholly supportive.
As for those in the stands who may feel different, he empathises.
“They are probably justified to feel like that but the ones I have been dealing with have been coming up to me and saying: ‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, we understand you also have a family’.
“I can understand if they are disappointed but I also think a lot of them understand my situation. I love Munster. But I’m also nervous about missing out on something in my life that might never come again.”
It may be a tug of the heart that takes him home but it is business, too.
Erasmus, while mindful of rugby’s traditions, spoke of the realities inherent in the modern game. He mentioned colleagues such as Dave Rennie at Glasgow and Joe Schmidt and how both could be lured home to New Zealand one day as well.
“I really think the game off the field is almost like any other career. Teams adjust and teams come through situations like this. What we had to go through last year (with Anthony Foley’s passing) compared to what we are going through this year, this is a breeze compared to it.”
There is a determination to, as he put it, avoid a point where he could never work with Munster in some capacity again and he will certainly be a useful and influential ally in a country bulging with over 1,000 professional players.
This chapter is over though. The only question left is when. And who will write the next one.
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