New Bok coach kicks off wisely

2008-03-01 00:00

SHORTLY before the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Kitch Christie sat in Dr Louis Luyt’s red leather office at Ellis Park, discussing the Springbok team’s preparation for the tournament. What began as gentle banter between two men who enjoyed each other’s company became a heated debate about the merits of rival players.

The coach became irritated and abruptly rose to his feet. “Look, Doc,” he said, “if you want to drive this bus, go ahead and drive it.” As he spoke, he threw his car keys down on the coffee table and strode out of the office, towards the lift. The spectacle of Dr Luyt sprinting after him remains indelibly etched on my memory.

It was an undeniably impressive gesture, even if it would have been interesting to see what Christie would have done if he had not been pursued and persuaded to return. If Luyt had let him leave, would he have simply sat downstairs in the foyer? Would he have asked a friend to collect him? Would he have called a taxi? He wasn’t going anywhere fast because his car keys were upstairs on the coffee table.

In any event, Luyt did catch him at the lift and cajoled him back to the red leather sofa, where one of the most notoriously autocratic executive presidents of SA Rugby unequivocally confirmed he would not interfere in selection of the national team. “You’re in charge, Kitch,” he said, “and you have my total support.”

The banter resumed, and Christie eventually left, taking his authority, his autonomy and his car keys with him.

What happened next is carved in the history of this country.

Thirteen years on, the landscape has changed.

Presidents of SA Rugby have long held the right to veto the selection of a player who they feel is not fit to represent this country; in 1986, Dr Danie Craven ruled Burger Geldenhuys out of the epic Test series against the Cavaliers because the Northern Transvaal flanker had broken the NZ captain’s jaw earlier in the tour. However, current rugby “boss” Oregan Hoskins broke new ground last year when he insisted on the selection of Luke Watson on the basis of nothing more than his own personal preference, and publicly defended his decision.

A precedent was set, and other elected administrators have since assumed the role of “uber-selector”, most notably Cricket SA president Norman Arendse. They act under the banner of transformation, and have been hailed by City Press columnists as heroes fighting remnant white supremacists, but their interventions have nothing to do with race or transformation; they undermine the sport itself.

Officials select the coach; they don’t select the team. If they do not agree with the composition of the squad, for whatever reason, they would be perfectly within their rights to convene a meeting and argue for the coach to be sacked. However, the fundamental principle that officials never, never, never interfere in team selection remains in force almost everywhere sport is played … except South Africa.

The challenge of restoring sanity to SA sport, a task that seems akin to getting toothpaste back into the tube, may very soon fall to the new Springbok rugby coach, Peter de Villiers.

His appointment was correct, not least because he has the wisdom to break the historical cycle of Springbok coaches who arrive in the job and act as if they have been up some kind of mountain and discovered the “truth” that eluded all their predecessors; so they proceed to change everything: the staff, the players and the captain.

De Villiers has shown the wisdom to recognise he is inheriting the world champions and to build on their success. His decision to retain the World Cup-winning captain at the peak of his career might seem the most basic common sense, yet it would have eluded the allegedly better qualified Heyneke Meyer, who appeared set to sack John Smit, replace him with Victor Matfield and launch his own dynasty.

The new coach has made a promising start, but, as the season gathers pace, he may soon find himself sitting in another plush office, feeling an urge to throw his car keys on the coffee table.

Let’s hope he does exactly that.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby (www.onesmallvoice.co.za).

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