Erasmus excited to be back at the heart of the action after his suspension

Springboks’ director of rugby stands over previous ‘soft’ comment about Irish team as he returns to match-day duties

Rassie Erasmus is a passionate rugby man and Springbok who can become quite emotional at times. The thought of his return to match-day duties after suspension almost brought a tear to his eye, as did the prospect of returning to Munster next week.

Erasmus will take the Springboks’ A side to his former province next week for their game against Munster at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Thursday. During his 18 months with the province up until December 2017, he and Anthony Foley built a strong bond before Foley died suddenly in Paris on October 16th, 2016.

Next week’s detour will allow Erasmus to fulfil the vow he made after the Springboks’ beat England in the World Cup final, namely to bring his medal to Foley’s grave in Killaloe.

“I can talk about Castleconnell specifically and Limerick and Cork, and then the rest of Ireland, because you have to be accepted in a country. You go to a country and you come with an Afrikaans accent there and people have to get used to you and you have to get used to them, and then Axel passed away, and you don’t actually know how things work.

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“The people guide you through that and although people thought that we as a team and as a management handled that pretty well, I thought the people handled that pretty well, because I didn’t even know how a funeral worked in Ireland. It’s much different in South Africa.

“We came through emotional times together [at Munster] and I learned a lot about rugby and about personal things. In other countries they might have said: ‘You’re from the outside here, tough luck if you don’t understand it.’ But they didn’t do it that way. They helped me. It’s nice to be back. I know it’s not going to be easy or friendly,” he said in reference to Saturday’s game against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium (k.o. 5.30pm), “but I know Irish people are good people”.

World Rugby having clarified the role of a Director of Rugby, Erasmus confirmed he will not be acting as a water carrier – as he did during his controversial role in the Springboks-Lions series, after which he was suspended for his behaviour towards the match officials.

His enforced absence from all match-day activity will make him appreciate Saturday’s game all the more.

“I certainly learned a lot, but I love match days and I love being with the guys in the changing room, and I missed that a lot. It will be nice to be back. It’s not nice to not be in with the guys. You spend the week with them, and the bus goes with the players, and you go to your room. I really love rugby, I love South Africa, I like the boys, the boys and I get on well and yeah, it’s nice to be back.”

The renewal of this rivalry has been given added intrigue by it being the sides’ first meeting in five years, somewhat unusual in modern times, and far more relevant in Erasmus’s view than the prospect of next year’s World Cup pool clash, is the memory of Ireland’s 38-3 win over the Boks in 2017.

“I think it spices it up,” said Erasmus, also noting that South Africa haven’t won in Dublin since 2012, but adding that these are two “totally two new teams” with new coaches. “It’s a new game.”

Whatever about the vagaries of world rankings, he said, “when you analyse their team, they [Ireland] are red hot. I’m not blowing smoke up their arse, but they are just really competitive in all areas of the game”.

Clearly then, Erasmus doesn’t regard this team as “fucking soft”, which was his description of Ireland in the Chasing the Sun documentary when drawing a comparison with the Welsh team which his Springboks were about to face in the 2019 World Cup semi-final.

“The ‘soft’ thing, I knew that one was coming,” he said with a wry smile, before standing over that comment.

“I didn’t particularly think that team had a very hard edge to be honest with you. What I was trying to explain but I know people will think it’s covering up, I thought the technicality they used to play with was their major thing that one had to counter.

“It wasn’t maybe robustness and in-your-face, that kind of play, it was that these guys will outsmart you. That’s the way they played but obviously I wouldn’t say that about the current team, they are where they are.

“And maybe they thought when they gave us 38-3 we didn’t have a physical edge or that we were soft. Things change quickly.”

This Test will also mark Conor Murray’s 100th cap for Ireland, and Erasmus said of his former scrumalf: “Yeah, Mur is one of the guys that when I coached at Munster he was already a senior player.

“For what he’s achieved and how humble he’s stayed. That was the thing when I got here. I thought, ‘I’m going to get this guy, he’s going to talk and be out there all the time’ and he’s this quiet, reserved guy. It was such a pleasure, his rugby I, talking to you but almost you had to ask for his opinion.

“So to play 100 Test matches, Eben [Etzebeth]has just done it the other day, in any country that’s well done. And he’s a nice guy and an awesome bloke and he knows the game so if he gets his run on Saturday, congrats to him.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times