Why Rassie's clash with Townsend may be personal

Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Murrayfield - There is a history between Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus and his Scotland counterpart Gregor Townsend that could add some extra spice to the South African motivation ahead of Saturday’s clash at Murrayfield.

Erasmus has a high regard for Townsend, who has done a good job carrying on the work started by Vern Cotter at Scotland after moving up from a successful stint at the Glasgow Warriors. When he returned from Ireland last year he described Townsend, who he coached against during his stint with Munster, as one of the most astute coaches in the business, and he backed up those views earlier this week when he started to look ahead towards his team’s next game after arriving in Scotland.

“I know how he coaches and his style of coaching is certainly all about a fit team who are well organised in all facets of the game,” said Erasmus.

“We played Glasgow four times in the same season and none of them were easy games, so I know about what he likes to do, but it's the same for him - he knows the way we are coaching. Scotland have a lot of Glasgow players in their team, so I know it is going to be tough."

What Erasmus did not mention there though was the major fall-out he had with Townsend after a Champions Cup game last January where Munster were incensed at the tactics the Warriors employed in their attempts to negate the influence of Munster’s world class scrumhalf Conor Murray.

Townsend stood accused of telling his players to deliberately hurt Murray by targeting his standing leg when executing box kicks. Those who were there say it had a definite impact on Murray’s performance and the Munster camp, not least the coach and also Murray himself, were furious.

“I don’t see any benefit in charging down someone’s standing leg, I only see it as a danger or as a potential to get injured,” said Murray in his press interviews after that game.

“They did it to us at Thomond Park, they got our scrumhalf Te (Aihe Toma) with it in the league game and they almost got me a couple of times. I’m not blaming the players. I don’t know who told them to do it but it’s very dangerous. Thankfully I didn’t get injured. They’re the only team I’ve come across that did it.”

Former Irish flyhalf Ronan O’Gara, now a media pundit, weighed in with some strong criticism of Townsend’s tactics.

“Going after someone totally exposed with one foot planted is a disappointing low in rugby and something I view as absolutely scandalous and appalling. And I have a fair idea of what I am talking about in this area,” said O’Gara.

Townsend’s response at the time was to blame Munster for making excuses for Murray having a rare poor game.

“I've heard a few comments out of Munster. Obviously the pressure we put on them, they didn't enjoy,’ said Townsend.

“Conor Murray is an excellent player, one of the best No 9s in the game. Maybe he didn't have the best game last week. We know Munster obviously had a very strong kicking game and we put pressure on that kicking game.

“Rugby is a physical game and we have got to do things within the laws that involve tackling. We weren't penalised for anything in that area last week. You've got to be aggressive and proactive.”

Erasmus wasn’t quoted but he confirmed when he arrived home in South Africa to take up his new job as national director of rugby last November that he and Townsend did not see eye to eye and had indulged in a heated war of words behind the scenes as the result of the targeting of Murray.

Now that the two coaches have both made the transfer from European club rugby to international rugby there should be some extra needle between the two of them in a game that both teams need to win, though for different reasons. The Boks, who currently boast just a 50% success rate from their first year under Erasmus’ coaching, need to win to get into the positive balance, while the Scots need to maintain the momentum built up through an impressive home record over the past two seasons.

Scotland have lost just once at Murrayfield in the last two years, and that was last November’s clash with the world’s best team, the All Blacks. Those who watched that game will recall it as a close shave for the All Blacks, with just a bit of Kiwi brilliance towards the end eventually separating the teams.

The New Zealanders won 22-17, but the Scots dominated large parts of the game and showed up well on the stats sheet. So Erasmus knows his team will be up against it at the weekend and will have to play well to win.

One thing that Erasmus was clear about when talking about Townsend was that while the pair aren’t the best of friends, Townsend, who enjoyed a stint in Durban playing for the Sharks during his playing career, is an excellent coach. And Erasmus has been impressed with what he has done with Scotland.

“They play a more southern hemisphere-style of play,” said Erasmus this week.

“It looks like it will be fairly dry on Saturday and Scotland are definitely a team that play very well tactically. They are not afraid to attack from anywhere - that is the way Gregor coaches. So it is a totally different challenge from France, with their big-moment players, and England with their kicking game. Scotland have a mix of both of them."

Bok assistant coach Matt Proudfoot, who represented Scotland as a player, has reiterated Erasmus’ view, describing Scotland as a formidable force that have several strengths to their game.

“They are a very good side and Gregor (Townsend, Scottish coach) has done a fantastic job with the team since he took over,” said the former prop forward.

“The challenge at the breakdown and the contact point is always crucial in test match rugby. The difference (compared to the French game) is that Scotland are probably a lot better technically in the defensive contact situations, while the French were very physical.

“Their continuity play and their ability to apply a kicking game, which allow them to counter off the back of that, are some other strong points. They are also a very disciplined side who are able to defend for long phases, so you don’t get to break them down easily. That means you must have a lot of patience against them.”

The Boks haven’t played in Edinburgh since 2013, when they turned in an impressive performance towards the end of Heyneke Meyer’s best year as coach, completing a 28-0 whitewash that atoned for a shock defeat at Murrayfield under Peter de Villiers a few years before that. The last time the Boks and Scotland met on the rugby field was in Newcastle, England during the 2015 World Cup, the South Africans winning that pool game 34-16.

So the Boks do have a good recent record against the Scots, and Erasmus did win all four of his tussles with Townsend’s Glasgow Warriors in his only full season as Munster’s director of rugby. If that trend is maintained at the weekend it will be a good result as the Scots, as evidence by their annihilation of Australia 12 months ago and England more recently, are not a team to be taken lightly, particularly not on their home ground.

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