Years ago, when he was dropping pearlers like the only fetchers he knew were his beer-retrieving sons, former Springbok coach Jake White once quizzed the rugby hacks about where they take their kids when they are sick – to their local GP or a student doctor.
The point of White’s pop quiz was to highlight an old bugbear of his – the importance of hiring an experienced coach instead of Johnny-come-lately celebrity coaches (former players), who, despite finding themselves coaching first-class rugby, were still learning the art of coaching.
As a career coach who worked his way up to the Springbok coaching job via decades spent as a schools coach, the video guy, a technical analyst and an assistant coach, White was – and probably remains – resentful of coaches who seem to have had the post handed to them.
While his stance may be seen as a “when we” one – or may earn a “come and join us [in modern rugby]” rebuke from his old sparring partner, Eddie Jones – we still need to talk about South Africa’s unhealthy disregard for coaching credentials.
Over the past month or so, I’ve written a story about the overqualified Paul Treu being turfed by Western Province; one of those no-smoke-without-fire accounts about Warren Whiteley joining the Lions’ coaching staff; and strongly speculated about Springbok defence coach Jacques Nienaber succeeding Rassie Erasmus as Bok head coach.
These instances, coupled with the news that recently retired former Springbok Pat Lambie is joining the Sharks coaching staff as a consultant, point to a trend where South African teams don’t seem to place as much of an emphasis on hiring coaches who have spent years honing their craft.
Whiteley hasn’t even retired, but it’s clear that, as soon as he does, he’ll be roped into coaching with what many may look at as indecent haste. It is instructive that the coaching staff he’ll be joining will probably be the greenest in South African Super Rugby history.
Probable head coach Ivan van Rooyen, having been a conditioning coach just two seasons ago, has coached only 16 first-class games since his surprise appointment to coach in the Currie Cup last year, while probable defence coach, Sean Erasmus, was coaching schools rugby just a year ago.
Should SA Rugby director of rugby Erasmus go ahead and name Nienaber as his successor to safeguard the continuity of his philosophy and alignment, the former physiotherapist won’t even have been a head coach.
There was a time when a potential coaching appointment had to jump through the hoops of what he had won. Now it seems like any track record – be it as a player or a backroom staffer – has become a path to the head coach position.
Given the assumption that recent former players are up to speed with modern trends in the game, the cash-strapped state of South African rugby and the fact that the coaches who do shave, figuratively speaking, prefer to do it from the comfortable confines of a Randburg studio, one can understand the juniorisation of the local coaching landscape.
But this fails to take into account the legendary players who have failed to make the transition work (think Martin Johnson with England), and it certainly doesn’t explain the undocumented criteria that encourages rugby administrators to increasingly put their faith in unqualified – let alone untested – coaches.
The fact that black coaches and baggage masters never seem to get the same gut-feel benefit of the doubt – or leap of faith – that is reserved for their white counterparts in these calls is a column for another day.
But it speaks volumes about a system based less on metrics than on personal relationships and preconceived notions about what coaches should look like in the game. There will always be room for left-field decisions when it comes to hiring coaches, but that can’t be the only way.
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