Even the bad days are good

2012-05-26 00:00

WHEN Johan Prinsloo, the then chief executive of the South African Rugby Union (Saru), phoned me to tell me I had the job, I was, of course, thrilled.

“We want you at our offices to make the announcement,” he said. “You are the coach.”

I had had an anxious month over the Christmas holiday period waiting for that call, so when I heard those words all the breath was expunged from my body and I was suddenly light-headed. I had the job — the dream I had cherished from the time South African rugby had unified in 1992 was being fulfilled.

Johan told me to keep the news under my hat until it was announced, and that I must come down to the Saru offices for the media briefing.

Driving to Newlands from Paarl on a bright Cape summer morning, I could scarcely contain my excitement. Hell, the guy from Paarl was the new Springbok coach! But Saru had a shock in store for me. When I got to their offices, Johan met me at the entrance and told me that there had been a change of plan. The provincial presidents weren’t happy with the decision the technical committee had made. They wanted to vote again, and this time it would be the presidents — effectively the Saru board — doing the voting and not the technical committee.

I was ushered into an office and told to sit and wait. It was there that the same silence I was to experience later on enveloped me. Although I was anxious, I also found calm in the tense quiet of that empty room. I remembered my mantra: “Whatever will be, will be.” If God wanted me for the job, they wouldn’t have a choice but to appoint me; if He didn’t, they would convey that message.

It crossed my mind that I hadn’t even told the people back home that I had been appointed. Therefore, if the vote went against me, who would ever know that I had, for one brief, wonderful moment, been the Springbok coach?

So my Springbok coaching career started off rather badly.

I had no idea why the technical committee had been overruled, as it had interviewed the candidates, conducted the tests and voted for me 7-1. The only person who had voted against me was the chief executive of the Sharks, Brian van Zyl. Overruling the committee effectively meant a vote of no confidence in its members.

I eventually won the day … not by much, though. The board voted 11-10 in my favour, so it was immediately apparent that there was much opposition to my appointment — and the president voted against me. But no matter, as soon I was put in front of the media. My new bosses hadn’t even discussed my remuneration or any other aspects of my contract with me. I answered the reporters’ questions … and then I heard the president of the union say that I was an affirmative-action appointment.

Here is what Oregan Hoskins said on January 9, 2008, the day of my appointment:

“I want to be honest with South Africa and say that the appointment did not take into account only rugby reasons. We took … the issue of transformation in rugby very, very seriously when we made the appointment.”

What the hell was that supposed to mean? How was I supposed to react to what he’d just said? Oregan later told me that Morné du Plessis and Johann Rupert had advised him on what to say. They had probably meant well, but where was the backbone you would expect in a strong leader? I can’t imagine that rugby leaders of the past, such as Dr Danie Craven, would have been swayed so easily or would have tolerated being told what to say.

I was very angry. And I was just as angry with Oregan’s next statement: “South Africa has a black coach now — that is fantastic for the game in all parts of the world.”

With those words, Oregan permanently pigeonholed me as an affirmative-action appointment. He was helping form the perceptions that would make it so difficult for me to be accepted by the rugby public, the media and other stakeholders. After that, each and every criticism that came my way was underscored by what Hoskins had said: that I was not given the position for rugby reasons only. I thus didn’t deserve to be the Springbok coach.

I immediately realised what a setback this was, and that I would face a massive challenge in trying to convince the rugby world, including the players, that I was representing everyone and not just black people, that I was not there to serve a specific agenda, and that I was, black or not, the best man for the job. Knowing this directed my response to a reporter’s question: “The [perception] that I am the first black coach must end now,” I said. “Players … must understand that they will stand an equal chance [of selection]. If they are good enough, talented enough and work hard enough, they will play for the Boks … The word ‘transformation’ is a bit of a swear word with me. I’m more concerned about a change of attitude than a change of colour.”

I suppose I was naive. In fact, I was naive about a lot of things, like the motives of the people who’d initially supported me. But we’ll get to that later. Before my appointment, numerous media articles reported that Saru were under government pressure to make up for the 2007 World Cup transformation ‘disaster’, as government called it, when just two black players, wings JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana, had played in the final.

So it was short-sighted of me not to realise that race would play a big part in the discourse. From the outset, though, I was determined to be everyone’s coach, not just a coach for a particular community or race group. It was one of the reasons why I wore a Bulls blazer to SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd headquarters on the fifth floor of the Sports Science Institute at Newlands for the media announcement. Some people thought the gesture arrogant, as Heyneke Meyer had been the other big contender for the job, and he was coaching the Bulls. So they thought I was trying to get at Heyneke. But that wasn’t the case at all. I wore the Bulls blazer because, at that stage, my stint as assistant coach to the Bulls in the 2002 Super 12 had been one of my most senior rugby positions.

And, as I explained to the media, I wore the blazer because I wanted to make everyone feel included. As I lived in the Cape, people could easily think that my allegiance lay with Western Province. By wearing the Bulls blazer, I was conveying the message that I was not aligned to anyone and that everyone was equal in my eyes.

So when Oregan said what he did, it dampened my excitement and made my job as a unifier a lot more difficult. I had lived and strived for the position of Bok coach all my adult life, but to then hear that I had got the job for reasons other than just rugby … I felt as if someone had punched me in the guts.

Needless to say, Regan’s statement did nothing to increase my respect for him. Nor did it quell my suspicion that the SA Rugby administrators did not want me as the Bok coach, and that they would try to force me out at the first opportunity.

It’s very difficult working for people you don’t trust. This lack of trust, as well as the feeling that I never really had their support, was to direct a lot of my decision making and behaviour over the next four years. It was also one of the major reasons for making the senior players my sole support group later on.

I had really wanted the day of the announcement to be the last day I was referred to as a “black” coach. Although I did see myself as breaking the mould and offering hope to the black kids in the townships, to be seen always as the “black” coach would also put unfair pressure on me. And I was already putting enough pressure on myself. Focusing on the colour of my skin made me feel tainted, as if everyone was judging me as a black man who was a coach, instead of just as a coach who happened to be a black man. I didn’t want to look for an easy way out if I made a mistake; I wanted to be judged on my coaching abilities alone.

The upshot of Oregan’s words was that everyone perceived me to be a political appointment. I had to decide how I was going to live with that.

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