As Munster’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus saw at first hand how to exploit opposition weakness under the high ball and now he believes that is the area he must improve quickest as he takes control of South Africa.
Erasmus, who left Ireland last November to return home to become the South African Rugby Union’s director of rugby, last week took on another high-profile position when he was named Springboks head coach, succeeding Allister Coetzee.
It was hardly an unexpected move for the former Boks back-rower and captain, who installed his friend and long-time right-hand man, Jacques Nienaber, as one of his assistants.
Nienaber had moved to Munster with Erasmus in summer 2016, and the pair formed a successful alliance at the province before they jumped ship 18 months into their three-year deal to return to South Africa.
That they lured Munster’s head of athletic performance Aled Walters to join them left a bitter taste, although Erasmus failed to extract another significant part of the Reds’ brains trust when attack and backline coach Felix Jones rejected the South African’s overtures.
The new Boks management team has quite a task on its hands to drag the former world champions back to the world game’s top table having slipped to sixth in the official rankings on Coetzee’s watch, winning just 11 of 25 Tests in two seasons and twice shipping more than 50 points against the All Blacks.
Furthermore, Erasmus will have a challenging start to his tenure with the Springboks facing Wales in Washington DC in his first Test at the helm on June 2 before heading home and straight into a three-Test series with number-two ranked England.
“I know it looks like suicide on the outside‚” Erasmus said at his unveiling about the scheduling of his first two Tests.
“It gives us 18 Tests before the World Cup and not 17 and that is the context in which we look at it. Obviously we want to win that game but we have to juggle a bit and be creative because a week later we play England at altitude at Ellis Park.”
Both Wales and England are capable of giving South Africa problems in the air and while Erasmus has taken heart from Scotland’s Calcutta Cup win over the English 10 days ago and the job his old Glasgow Warriors rival Gregor Townsend did on Eddie Jones’s men, the former Munster boss is fearful of his new charges’ achilles’ heel.
“Our aerial skills‚” Erasmus replied when asked to pinpoint the lead item on his work-ons list. “Everybody will come for us in that area. I don’t want to sound too clever now singling out things.
“Just a series win would be sufficient at this stage. They’re definitely beatable,” he said of the English.
“They’re a formidable outfit and Eddie’s getting them to play really well, but Scotland showed us (how to succeed). I coached against that Scotland team for Munster — they have about 17 or 18 Glasgow players in there. They’re a really good outfit and they’ve got continuity with Gregor Townsend, so I think that helps a bit. But I think we’re in with a good shout in June.”
During his time at Munster, Erasmus often spoke about the difficulties facing any Springbok head coach given the exodus of players to lucrative contracts in Europe, the political demands of meeting selection criteria under ongoing post-Apartheid transformation, and tensions between the national team and 14 different provinces, four Super Rugby franchises, and two Guinness PRO14 teams.
He will also have learned and benefited from his Munster experience when the tragic death of head coach Anthony Foley forced him back into a tracksuit and day-to-day coaching. It has taught him that all the planning in the world cannot overcome an inability to roll with the punches.
“If you’re asking about the appointment, the (SARU) leadership needs to answer that. Me personally, well, we’ve got a plan. I’ve seen a few plans in the past, I’ve seen the potholes and if you come into a system and you’ve got so many plans, but you don’t understand what the potholes are and you want to see, you want to learn from your own mistakes, normally you get fired before you learn from those mistakes,” he explained.
“There is a thing in South Africa where access to the players has always been a problem. We see it as this massive obstacle. From my point of view, it isn’t a simple plan, but if you don’t go out there and coach 365 days and be with those teams, overcome that hurdle, and get to know the players, get to see the players, their conditioning, when they are in the team talk, when they are under pressure, when they get dropped? If you don’t see them in that environment with those franchises then I think you are knocking on a closed door forever.
“That to me would be the big thing. We have really done that since November. The last thing is that I think we have good coaches, and we have the playing personnel, so if we can tie those two together and hard work, we are in with a good chance.”
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