On coaches and glory times

2013-12-14 00:00

RUGBY supporters have a choice of two contrasting books this Christmas, the first highlighting the travails of the Springboks’ post-isolation coaches, while the second cherry-picks South Africa’s most memorable moments over the same period.

The prolific Gavin Rich, an occasional writer for The Witness in years past, has followed the careers of a succession of post-apartheid Springbok coaches as they wound their way to inevitable dismissal in The Poisoned Chalice.

Stephen Nell glosses over the bad and the ugly, and concentrates on the good in Springbok Glory, an inside view of South Africa’s most famous recent victories.

(In a bookcase just a metre away is another Springbok Glory. Old and battered — the book not the reviewer — this 1955 publication is an excellent account of post-war Springboks. But it is a cricket book, by Louis Duffus, and that is a telling comment on how times and names have changed in the shifting world of South African sport.)

Nostalgia is said to be about dipping into the glorious past without dragging up the pain and that is precisely what Nell does in a series of interviews with coaches and players who were at the coal-face.

Chester Willams, Brendan Venter and Joel Stransky recall the most famous moment of all — the 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph at Ellis Park.

What has only recently emerged is that coach Kitch Christie had initially planned to beat the All Blacks in the final by out-thinking the New Zealanders, adopting an unpredictable approach and speeding up the game, taking tap penalties and quick line-outs.

It was only gentle persuasion by Venter and other rugby thinkers in the squad, followed by a chaotic practice where all the new ploys failed, which finally convinced Christie that he should stick with what the Springboks do best. And the rest is history.

Nell, in his search for golden moments in the modern era, interviewed, among many, Nick Mallett, Jake White, John Smit, Venter at length, Gary Gold, Peter de Villiers and the effusive Bryan Habana, and they add delightful detail to our blurred memories of famous tries and rewarding wins.

Rich, in contrast, highlights the lows along with the highs, as he traces the careers of coaches thrust into one of the toughest jobs in world sport.

One-eyed politicians, egotistical and amateurish administrators, the unrealistic demands of the media and a greedy rugby public pile massive pressure on the Springbok coach.

The result, says Rich, is that Springbok coaches all eventually contract Mad Coaches’ Disease (MCD), an ailment that forces them to lose their grasp of reality and go walkabout.

Rich, in this book, documents the symptoms and advance of this disease and how it eventually ends careers.

He refers to Harry Viljoen, who at the start of his tenure instructed his team not to kick the ball at any stage.

Later, under pressure, he did an about-turn and had two kickers (Louis Koen and Braam van Straaten) at flyhalf and inside centre.

Andre Markgraaff was just settling into the job when he made his racist phone call and was gone, and Mallett lost the plot when he sacked Gary Teichmann, one of the most successful Test captains in world rugby, on the eve of the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

Rich also writes that Christie displayed mild forms of the disease ahead of the 1995 World Cup final in wanting to play fast, off-the-cuff rugby against the All Blacks, with Venter and Rudolf Straeuli pointing out how silly the Boks would look if it all went wrong.

Straeuli will be remembered by the South Africa public for Kamp Staaldraad, the infamous training camp held on the eve of the 2003 RWC, but Rich says the Springbok coach was not the driving force behind the whole debacle.

Straeuli himself says the situation “was poorly handled by SA Rugby, the security company and me.

“I take the criticism on the chin but the full story hasn’t been told.”

Rich shows genuine sympathy for Ian McIntosh, who broke the mould by becoming the first non-Springbok to coach the national squad.

And he was a Rhodesian.

The Natal coach, after winning two Currie Cup title in three years with his innovative direct style of rugby, was seen by many as the last resort at the time and he received scant support from his rugby bosses.

He was not able to select the players he wanted to play his game and he did not have the backing of the many Transvaal players in the squad.

It was always going to end in tears and Louis Luyt sacked him after the 1994 tour of New Zealand.

Now, 20 years later, Mac has finally received recognition.

Francois Pienaar, who captained South Africa at the 1995 RWC, told Mark Andrews that the Springboks won the final by “playing the McIntosh game”.

And Mallett is convinced that McIntosh “was ahead of his time”.

He added that McIntosh had been treated badly “and for the past two decades teams across the world have been trying to play the rugby that McIntosh was trying to establish”.

Rich has not pulled any punches in his book.

He quotes Markgraaff as saying that Springbok icon and captain Francois Pienaar faked an injury against the All Blacks in 1996, clambering on a stretcher and leaving Newlands and his beaten team-mates.

Rich is also highly critical of coach Peter de Villiers’s decision to select hooker and captain John Smit ahead of Bismarck du Plessis at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

The author pays tribute to Smit’s massive contribution in guiding the Springboks to World Cup success in 2007 and victory over the 2009 British Lions, but believes the Bok captain then lingered on for too long.

De Villiers admitted to Rich that “everyone knew that Du Plessis was a much better player than Smit” at that stage [2011].

“But he [De Villiers] had made a commitment to Smit two years previously and intended to honour it.”

Rich writes that Sharks coach John Plumtree had already decided that Du Plessis rather than Smit was his first-choice hooker.

“Instead of arguing with him [Plumtree] about it, Smit should have been big enough to accept it as fact.

“In my view, Smit, more than referee Bryce Lawrence or the coach, may have lost the Boks the 20111 World Cup,” Rich writes.

Incidentally, the tiff at King’s Park may have had its sequel in June and cost Plumtree his Sharks’ coaching job.

If the family want a frothy, feel-good read over Christmas, drop Springbok Glory into the wife’s stocking.

If you prefer a more thought-provoking, warts-and-all account of rugby in this country, then grab a copy of The Poisoned Chalice.

• Springbok Glory by Stephen Nell (Tafelberg, Cape Town), 218 pages. R175.

• The Poisoned Chalice by Gavin Rich (Zebra Press, Cape Town), 304 pages. R220.

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