By Stephen Nell
The Cats have been rocked by an apparent rift between captain Rassie Erasmus and coach Laurie Mains that could undermine their chances of success in the Super 12 series.
Although the Cats' touring party put up a united front in the face of queries, various sources close to the camp and high ranking South African rugby officials on Monday all privately confirmed rumours of the fallout. The row is believed to centre around Erasmus's refusal to sign a petition that was going to be presented to Sarfu for Mains to be appointed as Cats coach for another year.
Rugby sources in Johannesburg, however, have stated that the two have also been at odds over tactics this year.
In the first sign of problems on tour, Erasmus was relieved of the captaincy for the Cats' 32-31 victory over the Crusaders at Nelson on April 22. The Springbok flank was then named in the Cats starting line-up for Saturday's 22-16 defeat to the Reds, but a media release stated that "because of Rassie Erasmus' ongoing injury problem to his ankle, he has asked to be relieved from the captaincy for the meantime".
Erasmus, however, did not play on Saturday, with the reason given that he had strained a buttock muscle during the team's practice in the build-up to the game.
Asked about the rumours, Cats media liaison Annemarie Mains (Laurie's wife) denied that a petition existed or that there had been a fallout: "Some of the players asked Laurie a few days ago whether he would stay on, but there was no petition at all," she said.
Mains was heard saying in the background: "I know nothing about it. Tell him to speak to Rassie." The phone was then handed to Erasmus, who denied there was a problem.
"I don't know where that comes from. It's utter nonsense," he said.
Sarfu chief executive Rian Oberholzer said he did not want to comment on the matter, but hinted that they were unlikely to entertain the thought of appointing Mains to the position of Cats coach again next year.
"You can't ignore the fact that Laurie will be coaching a National Provincial Championship side (Otago) in New Zealand later this year. It can't be wished away," said Oberholzer.
Mains' successful spell in South Africa since 1999 has also been blighted by controversy, in particular his refusal to adhere to the gentleman's agreement on black representation in the Super 12.
During last year's Currie Cup, the Lions were also guilty of transgressing quota system regulations by not consulting with a match doctor before substituting Conrad Jantjes with a white player. Mains has, however, also enjoyed immense success here.
In his first year in charge at the Lions, they won both the Vodacom and Currie Cup, while the Cats also made the Super 12 semifinals last year. This year, the Cats have again been in magnificent form and are on course to reach the playoffs. However, a rift between coach and captain could be extremely disruptive, particularly given that Erasmus' creative touches were sorely missed against the Reds.
The 28-year-old Cats star has consistently been one of the top loose forwards in the Super 12 and is widely regarded as one of the world's best flanks. His performances have also made him a certainty for the 26-man Springbok squad to be announced on May 12.
Erasmus captained the Cats in 1999 and 2000, but it was a controversial decision by Mains earlier this year to hand him the captaincy of the regional side ahead of Bok skipper Andre Vos.
The move sparked speculation that Vos' days as national captain could be numbered, particularly given the high number of quality loose forwards in the country, with Erasmus and Stormers captain Corne Krige both touted as potential successors.