Joe Schmidt vs Rassie Erasmus: the power behind the thrones

Rugby World Cup final sees matchup of two coaches with deep links to Irish rugby 

The two men are, of course, Joe Schmidt, the former head coach of Leinster and Ireland, and Rassie Erasmus, the former director of rugby and head coach of Munster. They are highly accomplished, highly intelligent, slightly obsessive, and driven individuals.

Schmidt left an altogether bigger imprint on Leinster and Irish rugby after spending nine-and-a-half seasons in the country. Hence, he’d have found the quarter-final match against Ireland emotionally difficult, and the least enjoyable win of his time with the All Blacks.

In contrast, Erasmus never seemed to be at Munster for the long run, even though he had originally signed a three-year contract. The irresistible allure of the Springboks never failed. As expected, he came back to South Africa in less than a year and a half to assume the role of director of rugby.

To make Munster’s disappointment even worse, he brought along his longtime friend and colleague Nienaber, and before long, Erasmus had replaced Allister Coetzee as the head coach of the “Boks.”

As anyone watching the coaches’ box at this World Cup can see, Erasmus is still the de facto main man even though he returned to his previous role as director of rugby following the last World Cup, with Nienaber officially being promoted to the position of head coach.

He has had a greater impact on the Springboks than Schmidt did on the All Blacks. Prior to taking on a selectorship, Schmidt served as a consultant for the first Test match against Ireland in July of last year, following the Covid outbreaks that affected Foster and his assistants, Scott McLeod and John Plumtree.

Schmidt was only promoted to a full-time position in August 2022, midway through the Rugby Championship, which they won and went on to win again this year.

Naturally, after only 18 months on the job, Erasmus led Japan to victory in the 2019 World Cup, resurrecting a team that had been defeated 38-3 by Ireland less than two years earlier.

Fittingly, Erasmus and Nienaber first crossed paths in 1991 while serving together for a year in the South African military.

In September 2016, Nienaber recalled, “He was one of our top graduates,” in an interview with The Irish Times. “We met again when he came to the [Free State] University and started playing for the University. He was quite good in the army and stayed on for another year.”

Their coaching seems to have been greatly impacted by their time in the military. As an illustration of his military-style campaign planning, Erasmus sent a team of players to New Zealand a week ahead of schedule for the Rugby Championship, and he rested eighteen of his best players for their 24–18 victory over Argentina.

Their philosophy is based on knowing their opposition inside out, thereby anticipating what they are going to do, so as counteract it. In the increasingly influential and in England-bound Felix Jones, whom Erasmus co-opted onto the Boks’ ticket before the last World Cup, they have a kindred spirit.

At Munster, Jones would assiduously analyse opposition goal-kickers, timing both their preparation stance and run-up, while looking for any chink to signal their run-up with a view to a potential charge down. Many Munster players watching Cheslin Kolbe block Thomas Ramos’ conversion attempt in the quarter-final would have said: “That was Felix.”

When the camera clipped to the coaching box at France’s first lineout in the quarter-final, Nienaber and Jones could be seen talking and nodding, as if agreeing what France were going to do next.

As most teams begin with a practiced move, they would have known from France’s set-up what was probably going to be their next play, with the blindside winger’s position indicating a kick or a move to the backline.

The Erasmus/Nienaber school of thought is essentially focused on triumphing in combat. The numerous videos that exist of Erasmus, Nienaber, and Eben Etzebeth in training grounds and changing rooms saying, “We’re going to f**k them up,” are the best examples of this.

Nienaber frequently discusses winning the gain line and “drawing a line in the sand.” They ask the players, “Why do you play this sport?” and make a connection between this and the sentimental aspect of the activity.

But they also ease the pressure on the players. For example, whereas some coaches demand that their scrumhalves box kick to a target 25 metres up the pitch, Erasmus and Nienaber don’t mind if their players shanking a kick, it’s all about the next chase, winning the next battle and as many battles as possible.

Their methods are tailor made for the Springboks’ mentality and physicality; consistently win the gain line and

reassure their players that they will win in more than 80 minutes. As seen by the 7-1 split in the final, their team was selected appropriately as well—a risk meant to only gradually tire out the All Blacks.

Making the players feel as though they have done the work and are so certain of every detail that they are also better prepared than the opposition is another of Schmidt’s tactics in the All Blacks camp.

His approach to training may be more scientific in nature, believing that constant excellence on the field leads to improved performance on the field. He also clearly has a more creative approach to ball use. Schmidt is renowned for his meticulous attention to detail and his ability to identify gaps in the opposition’s defense and take advantage of them.

Schmidt is a genius when it comes to using a strike play in one game and then, having shown that play to future opponents, tweaking it from a similar set-up.

The All Blacks opened up the French defense with opening plays in the first game, scoring early in each half. The All Blacks called a four-man lineout 11 meters inside half-way on their right touchline shortly after halftime.

In the midst of a three-man attacking pod, Aaron Smith hit Ardie Savea after Scott Barrett gave him the top ball. Mark Telea was put over in the corner by Rieko Ioane’s skip pass, which went forward from the recycle, after the number eight player, of all people, dropped the ball onto his left foot and chipped deftly over the advancing defensive line for Will Jordan, who supported on his inside, to gather.


In the 52nd minute against Ireland, the All Blacks again called a four-man line, in an identical spot. This time Brodie Retallick fed off the top ball to Smith, whose long pass again missed Jordan and hit Richie Mo’unga, with Savea on his outside.

There was a slight dog leg in the Irish defensive alignment, which Schmidt probably detected in advance. With Finlay Bealham, just on, hanging back. Mo’unga dummied to Jordan and accelerated through the gap between Dan Sheehan and Josh van der Flier before drawing James Lowe and putting Jordan over on his inside.

Similar to this, after a lineout, Schmidt’s Leinster and Irish teams would strike a forward, reload, and go up the middle of the field before the scrumhalf circled around. They would run the same first three phases a week or two later, but the nine would pass back inside for a runner who was trailing—similar to how Rob Kearney would hit that line near the ruck to put Cian Healy over against Clermont in that thrilling semi-final victory in Bordeaux in April 2012.

That sounds a lot like Schmidt. Present the same arrangement with various modifications removed. A lot of Irish rugby players will be closely observing how Erasmus and Schmidt will play in this final.

Because the power seated behind the thrones is what creates

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button