Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok scrumhalf NEIL DE KOCK talks about why he holds out hope Beast Mtawarira could make a Test U-turn, Jeremy Guscott's "strange" remarks and how he's staying involved in the game.
Sport24 asked: What was your reaction to South Africa’s World Cup win?
Neil de Kock: I was ecstatic, proud and relieved in terms of what this Springbok team achieved given where they were two years ago. To have Siya Kolisi lift the Webb Ellis Cup was something incredibly special and was one of those iconic moments that we will never forget. Looking at the transformation from 1995 to 2019 has been massive. Whether it’s bigger or not I’m not sure but the triumph this time is different. I think it’s as special as 1995 was but for different reasons. Rassie and his team stuck to their guns as they knew what they were trying to do and it worked. I take my hat off to Rassie because it’s sometimes very easy to crumble under pressure from outside sources and to make changes. Many people were moaning the Springboks weren’t playing enough rugby. However, Rassie had a very clear strategy, knew how to win a World Cup and backed his players. I had a sense from the outside that this squad was unified and the players were in a good place. When they are that is half the battle won. Knowing Rassie, he would have been honest and clear-cut with his messages in terms of what he expects from his players and how much value they add to a group. When a player knows where he stands and is backed, he will perform. The Springbok group was united and aligned in terms of the strategy and the plan that Rassie put out for them. It’s amazing what Rassie has achieved with the team in 18 months and one of the outstanding pointers is that the consistency with regards to selection and the plans he had for the players in that group was incredible. The Boks were most probably the most consistent team selection-wise throughout the World Cup. When you get players playing together for long periods of time they will surely improve.
Sport24 asked: How do you see the Springboks' post-World Cup future?
Neil de Kock: Rassie has said he is stepping into the director role full-time but I’m sure he’ll be very much hands-on and the template will be there for whoever will take on the role as Springbok head coach. Rassie will make sure he has got his finger on the pulse. In terms of Rassie and Jacques Nienaber, it’s almost like a centre pairing who have played together for 10 years. They know each other intimately and understand how each other function. They are aligned and Jacques will carry out Rassie’s plan to a tee. I’m sure it’s as much Jacques plan as it is Rassie’s and they have been so fitted as a force together that it’s almost that succession planning from within. If it’s Jacques who takes over as head coach, then brilliant and whoever will assist will also be guys part of the system in some way, shape or form. SA Rugby and New Zealand Rugby have different approaches and there are many ways to skin a cat. To invite 26 applicants from outside is also a good way of giving everyone an equal opportunity. However, in South Africa’s case it might be detrimental to what has been put in place over the last two years if someone were to come in and try to reinvent the wheel.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Beast Mtawarira's retirement?
Neil de Kock: To be honest with you I thought he would have an eye on the British & Irish Lions series in 2021. I think Beast is still very capable of performing as he has been. In professional sport, 18 months is a very short time and if Beast were managed carefully and looked after from a training and playing point of view, I think he is a player who could still contribute massively to the Springbok cause. That being said, I can’t speak for Beast and I don’t know where he is at mentally and emotionally. The service he has delivered to the Springboks over the last decade has been phenomenal and the fact that he has been a one club man for the Sharks shows his commitment and loyalty. Fair play to him for seeking out a new challenge after what he has achieved. However, that is not to say that if he plays in France or Japan he can’t still be used on a Springbok front and he might rediscover that desire to put on the green and gold jersey. If he decides in two years’ time that he actually still has that desire and hunger to come back, I’m sure the coach would consider him. I’m secretly hoping that Beast decides to come out of international retirement at some point because he is a talisman and can still add a helluva lot of value as a player. That being said, calling time after a World Cup win and 117 Test matches at the level he has played at is something all players dream of. The decision is all his but I would still love to see him run out in a Springbok jersey a few more times.
Sport24 asked: Your view on Schalk Brits retiring for a second time?
Neil de Kock: After his three-week retirement the first time, Schalk will retire for the second time in two years. From his perspective, I suppose you couldn’t have written a better script if you tried. After being at sixes and sevens about whether to do a retirement U-turn, ending his career as a World Cup winner is very special and it proved to be a great decision to return. He was always going to be up for it physically but again it comes back to Rassie’s planning and strategy and he got Schalk to buy into it. Schalla added plenty of value to the squad and I’m delighted for him as it’s a fantastic finish to a great career. It’s wonderful to bow out with a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck.
Sport24 asked: What is your take on Jeremy Guscott's comments?
Neil de Kock: It’s a little bit of a strange comment from my point of view for Jeremy to suggest that coaches should only be allowed to make three - instead of the customary eight - substitutions. I’m confused because it was no different for South Africa as it was for any other country playing at the World Cup in terms of how they were allowed to use their substitutes. Everyone was entitled to do exactly what South Africa did in terms of a 6-2 forwards to backs bench split. Rassie’s planning was on point and he realised that the "bomb squad" was going to be instrumental in this team. Hats off to him because he was forward-thinking and innovative. Rules are rules and if England or New Zealand had done it, I don’t think we as South Africans would have been moaning about it... We have been harping on about player welfare for the last decade and I still don’t think we have sorted out that issue. The fact is that players are played too often and get injured and now, if you want to have fewer substitutions, it doesn’t make sense. If anything there should be more substitutions from a player welfare point of view. We saw in the final, for instance, off the back of seven gruelling weeks Bongi Mbonambi and Lood de Jager going off, Eben Etzebeth holding his shoulder and Handre Pollard break a cheekbone and that’s not mention the four or five Englishmen who were forced off the pitch injured. As such, to suggest that we should have fewer substitutions makes no sense at all.
Sport24 asked: What's keeping you busy since hanging up your boots?
Neil de Kock: I’m involved at SAS (Stellenbosch Academy of Sport) rugby division and we have an exciting coaches seminar planned for the 28 and 29 November. It is an innovative two-day seminar with an exciting line-up of key role players of the game. We have some brilliant coaching minds who will be in attendance. In the first session, Gary Gold will discuss why teams kick so much, John Mitchell will explore the defensive approach and in the third session on day one I will talk about team winning culture. I will share my experiences over my career in terms of the different approaches coaches and those environments have taken to achieve success. I will refer largely to Saracens and how we went about setting up the culture and environment within the team that I believe set the foundation for the team’s success. I will be sharing those learnings and then also touching on other experiences in teams that I have been a part of over my career. Swys de Bruin will cover attack (thinking outside the box) Gregor Townsend will discuss counter attack and Matt Proudfoot will unpack the art of scrums and mauls. We also have Drikus Hancke, who has taken over as Maties coach and Peter Engledow, who has now assumed the role at Paarl Boys as head of rugby. We have a great mix of presenters and it’s an ideal opportunity for anybody out there who is keen to come join. (SAS Rugby Coaches Seminar and firstname.lastname@example.org)