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29th May 2021

Rassie Erasmus speaks about Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander in passionate press conference

Patrick McCarry

Rassie Erasmus

You can tell you the guy lives and breathes his rugby, and everything about the Boks.

If you did not know how the relationship worked between Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber before, a 40-minute Zoom chat would quickly get you up to speed.

Nienaber is the head coach of the Springboks, but Erasmus is the over-seer. He is the guy calling most of the major shots, leaving Nienaber to focus on the day-to-day running of the world champions. The pair are part of a four-man selection committee, but you get the sense that Erasmus is the tie-breaker if there are any split votes.

The South Africans are well know to Irish fans, of course, from their time here at Munster and they both comfortably occupy their roles – director of rugby and head coach.

On Friday, eight days out from announcing a large squad for the upcoming Lions Test Series, Erasmus and Nienaber did a long stint in front of their laptops as they first spoke with 60 South African media members and then with 40-odd members of the UK and Irish press.

Erasmus fielded most of the questions, and occasionally returned to topics that he felt he may not have properly explained. South Africa is struggling to get a handle on the Covid-19 situation, and bracing itself for a third wave. It means whatever players the Springboks select – for their main squad and for the ‘A’ game – cannot return to play for their provinces against the Lions.

Many within the South African rugby community are hoping for some fans – even at 50 or 25% capacity – to be allowed into games, but Erasmus says they will do whatever the government tell them, all the while hoping they are rewarded for good behaviour.

“We are handling the (Covid-19) situation better because we are getting used to it,” Erasmus said.

“We were facing the prospect of not having the Lions tour at all. We were prepared to play in the UK, in Dubai, with or without crowds. Postponing it would not work. We are really thankful it is going to happen. It is so special. A World Cup is the pinnace but, hell, a Lions tour is bloody close.”

“The only thing nowadays, which is special,” he added, “in the whole world of rugby, is the British & Irish Lions… there’s not a person that follows rugby that doesn’t know where and what date the British & Irish Lions are playing. It’s such a special thing.”

Springboks Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus shakes hands with head coach, Jacques Nienaber in January 2020. (Photo by Johan Rynners/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

There was not much talk about who the Springboks will select in their squad – announced on June 5 – during the chat with ‘foreign media’. Rather, the focus was on the Lions players set to head down to South Africa in a months’ time.

From an Irish perspective, Erasmus spoke about Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander, while he was surely referring to Conor Murray when he remarked on how the Lions scrum-halves would be sending the ball airborne a lot.

Asked about the Lions selecting Sam Simmonds and Hamish Watson, Erasmus began by saying, “Jacques could probably answer this one”, before giving it a pretty good stab himself.

“Jacques and I were talking about the squad and, hell, that’s fast loose forwards, man. And it’s explosive loose forwards.

“I’m not sure if Courtney Lawes will back up flank/lock. I know Tadhg Beirne. I signed Tadhg for Munster, from the Scarlets. I know what he can do, in both [positions].

“Then you look at the other loose forwards and, hell, the whole pack – the props are mobile.”

Tadhg Beirne was signed for Munster by Rassie Erasmus in 2018. (Credit: Getty Images)

While many believe Warren Gatland is going to confront the Springboks with big bruisers – hence the selections of Lawes, Bundee Aki and Chris Harris – Erasmus is conscious that the Kiwi may be ‘throwing out some bait’.

“I think he has something up his sleeve,” he said. To Erasmus, the Lions have a squad capable of playing wide-wide or going up the middle and aiming to win the physical battle.

With the likes of CJ Stander, WP Nel and Rob Herring all missing the cut, Duhan van der Merwe is the sole South African [now qualified for Scotland] in the Test side.

“Duhan was in the Junior Springbok team that lost in the final in New Zealand so we know him pretty well,” Erasmus recalled.

“I remember sitting with him and his dad afterwards and discussing his future. He’s come the full path with SA Rugby. We’re not of the mindset that he doesn’t deserve to play anywhere else. Good for him. The way he’s played, nobody can argue. He will know most of our guys fairly well. It’s weird but in a way we’re proud of him… It is the same with guys like CJ [Stander] that have taken a similar path.”

As for the squad himself, Nienaber and the other two national team selectors will settle on, Erasmus will go for many of the men that led the Boks to the 2019 World Cup triumph.

For all the talk of throwing bait and selecting mobile players, everyone knows that whoever can boss the physical battle will be the team that emerges victorious.


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