Q&A: Nick Mallett on...

Cape Town - Tank Lanning from SCRUM magazine speaks to former Springbok coach Nick Mallett on Romain Poite, selecting overseas-based players and whether he'll ever coach again...

Tank Lanning: Romain Poite had a nightmare game reffing the Springboks v the All Blacks at Eden Park and you were pretty vocal about it. What do we do so as to avoid that happening again?

Nick Mallett: Poite made three mistakes. First was his error in calling the Bismarck hit illegal, second was not listening to anyone about it, and then not using the TMO. And at the risk of sounding patriotic, I’m upset about the referee ruining a great contest. It was like George Foreman v Mohammed Ali being called off because of a false low blow!

The frustrating thing is that rugby is very complicated what with all the laws etc, so it is difficult for one single man to rule the game correctly. We need to move away from one referee making all the decisions. Two referees on the field perhaps? But there would need to be a huge amount of communication

We could allow both captains two referrals where they can ask the referee for a replay! If there is foul play, obstruction, forward pass, or whatever, the ref can then act. Wrong call by the captain and he loses the referral.

The TMO needs to have more of a say in the game and be able to communicate down to the ref, not only the other way round as it is now. The TMO gets to looks at many more angles than we do on TV, so he needs to be in the best possible position to view all of these angles, and that is in the stadium. There is no reason why they cannot do their jobs accurately.

Tank Lanning: Do you think the Boks get the raw end of the deal in some of these refereeing decisions?

Nick Mallett: We tend to react to the opposition’s foul play, and thus seem to be the team penalised. We are also not particularly smart when it comes to running obstruction lines that the Kiwis tend to get away with. We are known for the Bakkies Botha headbutt, the biting of Sean Fitzpatrick’s ear, the mission to illegally beat up the English in 2002 when Jannes Labuschagne was red carded for a late tackle on Jonny Wilkinson. This ultimately stemmed from our inability to compete at a difficult time for us during the early 2000s. As we’ve moved forward, we’ve moved away from testosterone and more towards intelligence and bravery. This is where we have got better, through the likes of Victor Matfield and John Smit. The All Blacks are very strong in terms of discipline and controlling their aggression. We’ve had this reputation in the past, but the way De Villiers and Meyer are conducting themselves in the press etc shows how far we have come. There is clear evidence that we are moving in the right direction. When I took over the Boks in ’97, we noticed a marked improvement in how referees treated us, simply through managing our own aggression.

Tank Lanning: Do you think we should be picking overseas-based players for the Boks?

Nick Mallett: That is a contentious one, and we need to look at it differently. Do you think we should allow our players to go overseas? What do we need to do to keep them here? If this is how we approach the problem, then that is how we will rectify it. There is enough money in South African rugby - over R800 million a year is going into SARU. Do we have the right professional template in South Africa to be successful? Why are we paying 14 minor unions R12 million a year because they can’t keep themselves afloat? I think we should have six franchises owned by individuals like Johan Rupert. Then the money made by the professional game should be used to pay pro rugby players, with a certain amount going towards the amateur game via the clubs - the heartbeat of our rugby. We need to look after our clubs. Club creation should be based on player concentration. So if the Western Cape have 96 000 players, then they can have 20 clubs, and if there are only 500 players in Welkom, then they can have one club. Clubs would then need to meet certain playing and facility conditions using this money, which would not be for paying players but for maintaining structures. Why not give a million to 12 clubs as opposed to R12 million to one club? The idea that the Vodacom Cup brings players through isn’t working. What we need in its place is a strong club competition that gives amateurs the ability to be fit, conditioned and looked after in a professional framework. Then a decent scout can look into that competition and pick up a guy who perhaps wasn’t picked up at Craven Week and is now twenty five years old, but has developed really well. The crux of the situation is that a lot of the money we have at our disposal is being wasted at minor unions when really it could be kept to pay our players who are heading overseas. The market dictates that Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie are worth R11 million. If we want to keep these guys, we need to match these prices. We therefore need private investment, and we need more of the money kept in the professional game.

Tank Lanning: You have changed SuperSport from being a 'Ra Ra' supporter medium to an engaging medium offering educated opinion. How did you do it?

Nick Mallett: By not being different form the way I normally behave. I am fortunate in that I’m not a permanent employer with them so I can prepare my own work. I said to them that they hired me for my professional expertise based on years of top level coaching. I understand the game, and if you want my analysis, it will be critical. If the guys played badly, I will say so, and say it was because of A, B and C. They are happy if my comments are backed up by facts and statistics. I’ve tried to be objective. Last year the guys up North criticised me for being pro Stormers and Sharks, but they were the sides that finished the best in Super Rugby. This year, the Cheetahs and the Bulls were the top sides, so suddenly people from the South think I’m biased towards the North. So it goes to show that I’m trying to be fair ultimately, and I don’t feel a pull towards any particular union. I really just love rugby - when it is played correctly. So I look to show people where we can be better, and I base my analysis on facts and even though I am a passionate, and emotional person, viewers can still see that I will be talking sense. It is important to distance yourself emotionally, and give the reality of the situation. After Mendoza last year I said it was a disgraceful performance and that only Eben Etzebeth deserved to pull on the Bok jersey. I said Andries Bekker had a shocker. The statistics showed that Bekker, in 50 minutes on the field, hit 5 rucks and missed 3 out of 6 tackles, one of which lead to a try. So my comment was backed up statistically. I have mentioned Pierre Spies in the past for not being physical enough and this shows up on his stats. I like Pierre Spies, but there are times when he doesn’t do what is asked of a No 8. Compared with Kieran Reid of New Zealand, we need to find someone who can now combat Reid. These are the points that I need to make, and I feel it is important. There were a few days of silence from SuperSport after that Mendoza game, though! I think they were pretty surprised at my comments. However, the general consensus was positive and people were happy that someone was pointing out what the public are seeing on their televisions. People understand the game and we need to give their knowledge of the game credit and say it how it really is, otherwise we lose value in our analysis.

Tank Lanning: The 1999 Rugby World Cup... What would you have done differently?

Nick Mallett: Obviously we had the Gary Teichman issue. Gary was a great leader but had been over played. He hadn’t missed any games of top-level rugby in three years. He needed time off and to get better. I made a bad decision. I felt I needed the best players in their position, but what I didn’t realise was the impact Gary’s charisma could have on the other players in the squad. You might not be the best in your position, but through other factors such as personality and enthusiasm, you bring the best out in other players. Strong leaders are of upmost importance, and I didn’t quite realise the full value of this in ’99. The evidence is there: Francois Pienaar in ’95, Teichman when we won 17 in a row in the late 90’s, John Smit in 2007. Unfortunately for Gary, he hadn’t been able to rest before the World Cup because the Sharks were insistent on him playing in the Currie Cup.

Tank Lanning: Will you coach again?

Nick Mallett: I have no regrets, I’ve enjoyed my time coaching round the world. I got close to the England role, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’m no Graham Henry who can’t get off a rugby field! I am enjoying the television side of things. The pressure of coaching gets very stressful and while it is very enjoyable, when you get a bit older and you’ve paid off your bond, you don’t need that hassle anymore!

Tank Lanning: At the end of your Springbok tenure, you weren’t happy with the Bok ticket prices. What is your take on the current ticket prices?

Nick Mallett: I haven’t had to pay! What I’m convinced of is that ticket prices need to be manageable. This is where the American sports are great. They run their sports very efficiently in terms of making their money from TV rights and sponsorship, thus giving them the ability to make ticket prices affordable for middle class society. In this country, our ticket prices do not adhere to the middle class. We negotiate good TV rights and sponsorship rights, yet we still insist on making money on ticket prices. We’ve had Rugby Championship games in this country where there have been 10 000 empty seats. That is not the objective. We want people to go to the games and enjoy supporting their team and people at home must be watching a great atmosphere with a full stadium, jealous that they are not at the game themselves.  I’m talking about your man in the street who is rugby mad and has a Test match coming up in his area, but cannot afford to take his wife and kids to watch the Boks play. That is a tragedy. It’s not just the rugby, its transport there etc. It turns into a big financial issue for middle class society. I don’t regret my comments about ticket prices, and I don’t think many South African disagree with me.

Tank Lanning: Greatest player you’ve played with and against?

Nick Mallett: I value the team performance and I don’t like player of the day/tournament awards. The reason why rugby is such an amazing sport is because you cannot be anything without the guys around you. You cannot be a good hooker without a good tighthead prop or a good wing if the situation isn’t prepared correctly for him to run in the try. To draw individuals out is unfair, and it’s normally a flyhalf or a wing. What about the tighthead prop for his work? When does a tighthead prop ever get a man of the match award? It’s heart breaking! So in terms of teams, the best side I played in was the Western province Currie Cup side from ’82-’85 – it was unbelievable. There were 18/19 Boks in that set up. Hennie Bekker, Carel du Plessis, Schalk Burger senior played to list a few. The ’76 UCT team that beat Stellenbosch for the first time in 17 years. That side had Chris Pope and Peter Whipp in it. Those teams are what I value most. The emphasis on the team as opposed to the individual has always been a philosophy of mine.

Tank Lanning: Has there been a coaching moment that stands out for you?

Nick Mallett: Too many! I’ve had a very privileged coaching career. Taking the Boks to a 50 point win in France and having the French public requesting the Springboks to do a lap of honour was amazing. Winning the Tri-Nations in an unbeaten campaign and beating New Zealand (in New Zealand) for the first time in 17 years was an unbelievable achievement. We also had a great comeback against the All Blacks in the home leg, after being down by 20 points at one stage. Jannie de Beer’s five drop goals against England in the ’99 World Cup was another. Also, winning two French championships with Stade Francais with 80 000 people watching in Stade de France. That atmosphere was incredible, the French and the colour made for an amazing atmosphere! All the fans enjoying themselves was an amazing experience. I was the first foreign coach to win that title and to do it in both my years there made it extra special. Beating France with Italy is also right up there! The French crowd stayed behind that day and sang the Italian national anthem with the Italian fans. It was very moving and emotional. 

For the FULL interview, head to www.scrum.co.za, where the magazine is free to subscribers.
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