ANALYSIS: The Erasmus Game

  • As statements go, these words from Rassie Erasmus in the aftermath of the Saracens defeat at the Aviva Stadium were fairly definitive.

    You can read the entire exchange on this article, posted on The42.ie on April 24th, 2017. Almost two months (to the day) after this article was posted, Munster Rugby announced that Rassie Erasmus (and Jacques Nienaber) were departing in December 2017, having handed in their six months notice period in order to take up roles with the South African rugby union.

    On the face of it, you can understand a lot of the anger and disappointment that is floating around Munster Rugby at the minute. Post Saracens, the idea that Erasmus and Nienaber would be seeing out their contracts at Munster was incredibly comforting to the organisation and its supporters. To hear the man say that he was staying, and in such definitive terms, was a relief after months of damaging speculation had chipped away at Munster’s psyche during a critical period in the season.

    And then, less than two months after saying these words, it’s announced that both were leaving.

    Without context, it’s difficult to put these two events side by side and not coming away thinking that there had been some shenanigans at play.

    Moccasins

    But, as with most things, we have to put ourselves in the other man’s moccasins before getting too worked up. I understand Erasmus’ position in a lot of ways.

    Coaching the Springboks has long been an ambition of his and the entire reason that he was here in the first place was due to not being considered for the job in the first place last year. Imagine how pissed off he would have been at being politicked out of a job like that? Evidently, it was enough to take up an offer from the IRFU to be Munster’s Director of Rugby, which may have surprised a few blazers in South Africa and delighted the blazers up here.

    Put yourself in Rassie’s shoes for a second. Now, imagine – hypothetically, of course – that the very people that passed you over for that job you so badly wanted were crying to you over Christmas (and even beforehand) about what a mistake they’d made in hiring Coetzee, and that the fans and sponsors were deserting the Boks in droves. Imagine that they were saying that the future of the Boks was in real danger of falling away if something – like you coming back, Rassie – doesn’t happen.

    If you’re a man that loves Springbok rugby as much as Erasmus, that would be hard to resist. You can’t help but feel that the South African Rugby Union – like a drowning man clawing at the side of a kayak – were desperate to rectify what they now saw as a grave mistake. Losing to Ireland in South Africa for the first time ever? Getting humiliated by the All Blacks in South Africa? Drawing with the Barbarians and losing three on the spin to Wales, England and Italy in November? Something needed to be done.

    Conveniently for the SARU, a story (somehow – wow! – how did that happen) leaked in January that the SARU were in discussion with Erasmus about bringing him home. Not only that, the story also said that pay-TV network SuperSport were to provide the financial support to buy Erasmus and Nienaber out of their contracts! Wow!

    Now there was a story that would surely grow legs and run to the Northern Hemisphere – which it did – and would lead to damaging speculation at a crucial time for Munster.

    Like the old story about LBJ accusing a rival of being a pig f**ker during a Texas election, someone, somewhere, just wanted to hear Rassie deny it.

    Like clockwork, Erasmus came out to deny the speculation, but with a strange caveat. His lawyer, Frikke Erasmus (no relation) told Rugby365.com that;

    “Rassie has a contract with Munster and won’t travel to South Africa for discussions while doing so well with Munster. Rassie is very happy in Ireland. He doesn’t have to deal with interference as is the case in South Africa. He still has plenty of time left on his contract, which is is a very good one.”

    What a strange thing to write in response to – as far as he was supposed to know – a speculative article with no basis.

    He doesn’t have to deal with interference as is the case in South Africa.”

    Hmmm. It’s a little like your ex-wife telling you there’s no chance of getting back together because her new boyfriend doesn’t have a moustache. The key take home there is – shave your moustache and we’ll talk.

    Now, as you now know, half of this story as reported initially was complete nonsense – the half that said that the SARU had someone to buy out Rassie and Jacques contract. They plainly didn’t need anyone to buy Rassie out of his deal because they will have known about his six-month release clause almost the minute that he signed with Munster.

    The Clause

    By now, there are few Irish rugby heads that don’t know about the IRFU’s six-month break clause in their contract. This means that, with six month’s notice, either party can exit the terms of the deal if certain pre-agreed circumstances are met.

    A lot of people claim to know what’s in rugby people’s contracts but all we know for certain is that Erasmus has triggered his notice period officially in the last number of weeks – some say two, others say quite a number of weeks longer. But that doesn’t mean that Munster/IRFU haven’t known that there wasn’t something afoot.

    How could you think anything else when Erasmus was making statements like this on March 28th, 2017, roughly two months after the initial story broke?

    “I do [expect to be in Munster next season]. Just because I have a contract with Munster, I will never go outside my contract and outside the clauses and not honour a contract if there isn’t something stipulated there.” – Rassie Erasmus (The42.ie)

    I see now that Erasmus was in an extremely difficult position here – one that I sympathise with.

    On the one hand, I’m sure he was pretty happy in Munster. He was getting good results, receiving almost universal praise and the players had bought into his vision. On the other, he was probably under heavy pressure from his close friends and former colleagues back in South Africa to come back and “save the Springboks”.

    And, while all this was going on, he was constantly asked about his intentions with a mic in his face.

    Seriously – from January until the European Cup semi-final against Saracens there wasn’t one media appearance where he wasn’t asked about his intentions. He was left with the option of either dancing on the head of a pin or telling a self-destructive truth at the business end of the season.

    He was caught between two stools – between the job he’d grown to love in Munster and the one he’d always wanted in South Africa. He couldn’t pick one without souring the other. You can imagine what telling Munster that he was off in the summer before a Champions Cup playoff run would have done to his credibility with the group.

    And one doesn’t have to be a psychic to wonder what the SARU would have made of Erasmus turning them down in their time of gravest need. Maybe he was told that – perhaps – it was now or never for that green blazer.

    What a difficult situation for the man and I mean that sincerely.

    The constant reports in the South African press ensured that he would be answering these questions for the rest of the season. Normally, right before big European Cup games – something which, when you think about it, ended up being hugely convenient for the South African Rugby Union.

    Cheap Talk

    The presence of that six month notice period meant that the SARU didn’t have to put their money where their mouth was and buy out Rassie’s deal. I mean, they just don’t have the cash for that – Nienaber and Erasmus are on excellent deals. So instead of going to the IRFU with a lump sum and a prayer, all the SARU had to do was whisper sweet nothings down the phone during the many “formal and informal chats” Rassie had with them.

    We can rue it now, but would Erasmus have signed the deal to come here in the first place if the exit clause wasn’t there? Especially if the Bok job came calling?

    Of course, while all this was going on, Munster and the IRFU were constantly talking to Erasmus in the background, in an attempt to convince him to stay. The IRFU and Munster – understandably – didn’t want to lose Erasmus or Nienaber one year into a three-year deal and for good reason. They’re world class. But the presence of the exit clause, something Erasmus constantly referred to or hinted at in his public utterances, meant that there wasn’t much they could do if and when he decided to trigger it.

    When Erasmus made the comments referenced above post-Saracens, it seemed to put the story to bed – publicly at least. That was until the latest story came to public attention a few weeks back. The specifics of that story have all been proven to be correct, with the timing of his notice being the only discrepancy that I can see. The report said he handed it in his notice two months ago and I heard three weeks ago. It all depends on how long his notice period was, ultimately.

    The Blame Game

    So who’s to blame? Erasmus? The IRFU? Munster? The Springboks? The truth is, it’s more complicated than that. Yes, it certainly looks like the timing of the notice was done to pressure Munster/IRFU into giving an early release pre-Rugby Championship. No one wants a dead duck coaching ticket and the Munster brain trust certainly don’t. The SARU will have known this too.

    My own opinion is that Munster will be bursting a gut to get their desired man/men into the post as soon as possible and that the notice period is a game of contractual chicken as much as anything else. The SARU want Rassie/Jacques in place for the Rugby Championship. Munster/IRFU won’t leave them go without replacements in situ. You can see the impasse.

    That the SARU can’t even buy out six to nine months of Erasmus and Nienaber’s deals will tell you all you need to know about how the situation unfolded as it did. I can’t see Rassie and Jacques being here beyond September, personally. They may well end up doing just that, but that’s an outcome that I can’t imagine that anyone really wants.

    ***

    Munster won’t be going in cold when it comes to the coaching manhunt. The province has one of the best networks in World Rugby and we certainly won’t be short of quality applicants either. As per usual, the Munster board are getting it in the neck online but, as much as I feel for Erasmus’ situation, you can only imagine how the Munster board are feeling behind closed doors.

    The disappointment in the Munster statement last Friday was palpable. They certainly didn’t want to lose Erasmus and Nienaber a year into their deals. They’ll know the uncertainty it will cause amongst fans and were trying desperately to avoid this situation for much of the end of the season. A lot has been made of their decision not to make any public statements on the matter while it was unfolding but what could they have said that would have satisfied people?

    Nothing. They’d either be made liars of or put in a position where they set a precedent of responding to any press speculation that makes enough noise.

    Think Of The Players!

    One of the big issues I see in my Twitter mentions, direct messages and emails is concern over what the players will be thinking after all this. I imagine they’ll get on with the job. They, like myself, will probably accept that you can’t turn down a coaching gig with your home country when they come calling. Perhaps there’ll be a bit of confusion over statements they heard publicly last season but ultimately, I think they’ll “get” it.

    Of course, Erasmus will have to explain his decision to the players when the time is right.

    But the idea that senior players like Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and others will somehow be rendered helpless by this situation is a little fanciful – to say the least – and is more of a fan projection than the reality. The players will be more concerned with the watt bikes and heavy iron then things outside of their control. The ownership in this group is bigger than these swings and roundabouts, as unfortunate as it is. I have a feeling that the speculation ending will be as refeshing as the cool side of the pillow on a hot night.

    With this situation, it’s important not to forget the guidance and improvement that Erasmus and Nienaber brought this season. Especially when Anthony Foley passed away. There was no manual for that, but they helped keep the show on the road along with the senior players, Flannery, Jones and O’Donovan. I think Munster fans should be thankful for the time both men spent here. Some of the events around the departure are regrettable, for sure, but in context, there wasn’t really any other way it could have gone down.

    The improvement we saw last season was as much down to the players taking ownership of the team as it was anything else and the lessons learned will stick with them for years to come.

    Munster is bigger than anyone’s decision to leave or stay. And it always will be.

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