Johannesburg - After a year making friends and influencing people in Ireland as the Munster head coach, former Springbok flanker Rassie Erasmus has come back to pretty much his old job at SA Rugby, as the organisation finally confirmed the worst-kept secret on Friday.
While the new title of director of rugby isn’t quite general manager of high performance, as was the case before he left in what many understood to be a huff because Allister Coetzee got the Bok coaching job and he didn’t, SA Rugby’s news release gave the impression that Erasmus’ lot would consist of tinkering behind the scenes as he oversees South Africa’s “eight national teams”.
Given that most of this country’s reputable coaches tend to coach by column inches, podcast soundbite or from a broadcast studio near you, the news of Erasmus’ return is great in a country struggling for senior coaching statesmen who are hands on.
It also helps that Erasmus’ stint with Munster was a successful one: he took them to the European Cup semifinals; was voted Pro12 coach of the year; and players such as Simon Zebo raved about the affect he and the ever-present Jacques Nienaber have had on their careers.
And while SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux was at pains in the statement announcing Erasmus’ return – which is pencilled in for January 1– to reinforce that this in no way meant Coetzee was being replaced, the question of how the national teams would be overseen by the former Cheetahs and Stormers coach went unanswered.
I say that because, in both the stories that broke the news of Erasmus’ return, there was a line that said he would be a “hands-on” director of rugby, which I took to mean he would be involved in on-field coaching.
The thing is, if we now trust the veracity of the reports about Erasmus’ return because Friday’s announcement confirmed they were right, then we have to trust the rest of the contents of the articles.
Dropped the ball
Before we go into the complexities of how a director of rugby would be hands-on during the week and not in front the microphones after a defeat on Saturday, we probably need to examine just what SA Rugby had to give up to lure Erasmus back.
Presumably, Erasmus was paid the kind of money that would make it difficult for SA Rugby to compete with by paying him more to come back, so the question is what was the compromise that got him to agree – influence? If so, what form would that influence take?
You have to remember that, when SA Rugby brokered the deal, it had to have had its back to the wall because it simply didn’t trust that the Bok head coach would emerge with a 3-0 victory over France.
The negotiations between Erasmus and SA Rugby would have been for a contingency plan if Coetzee – who is a walking, talking Lazarus for coming back from the nightmare year he had in last year – dropped the ball during the French series.
Now that he hasn’t, the question has to be: What has Erasmus been promised after having to be elbowed to an office with disco lights instead of the field? The reason it is important to work out what the rules of engagement are is how tightknit the Boks have become this season.
Two things are of possible concern there: what happens with defence and exits consultant Brendan Venter, and whether the coaches themselves will gel. Venter may be an abrasive sort, but an unspoken part of his job description is how he has the rare ability to get a large group of men pulling in the same direction. Call it culture, mana (as the Maoris do), he’s always had a way of making sure it exists in the teams he’s been involved with.
If Nienaber, also a defence coach, is around, is he really to be expected to work in the shadows again?
While Coetzee, Erasmus and Venter all worked together at the Stormers in 2008, the question has to be asked that if Erasmus left for Ireland because he was upset, will the working relationship with Coetzee still be the same?
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