Coaching structures in SA need an overhaul

Who’s next? There appear to be no readily available, suitable replacements for under-fire Bok coach Allister Coetzee. (Nic Bothma, EPA)
Who’s next? There appear to be no readily available, suitable replacements for under-fire Bok coach Allister Coetzee. (Nic Bothma, EPA)

Johannesburg - If the Springboks’ record defeat to Ireland emphasised anything, it is the paucity of coaches who are ready to take over from Allister Coetzee if he does get the sack, as some reports suggest.

With Rassie Erasmus supposedly only coming back from Ireland as director of rugby (as opposed to head coach, which may change), practically none of the Super Rugby franchise coaches can replace Coetzee. The Bulls are unlikely to release former New Zealand coach John Mitchell, who is only months into his tenure.

The lack of an obvious replacement for Coetzee is an indictment on the country’s coaching structures. Griquas coach Peter Engledow, who for eight years was the Rugby Football Union (RFU) coaches’ coach, compared our structures with those in England.


When I arrived at the RFU, there was a huge emphasis on the development of coaches by our boss Gary Henderson (head of game development). They wanted to have the best coaches in the world because they didn’t have the world class athletes other nations had and felt the only way they could compete was through a thorough coaching system. They talked to everyone – the New Zealanders, the French and the Australians and came up with their own systems.

Systems and structures

We don’t have our own coaching systems, we rely on World Rugby’s levels one, two and three instead. For all the money we had in the past, we have not invested enough in the education of coaches. Bigger unions like Western Province and the Sharks have their own systems, but there are no national structures and no succession planning. For example, New Zealand know the next four coaches in line, which is why (Hurricanes assistant coach) John Plumtree was sent to Japan to improve his defence coaching. I don’t think Rassie knows who the best coaches here are.

Sharing information

A couple of years ago, I actually approached Rassie and Jacques Nienaber and said I’d share everything I learnt from the RFU from grass roots up, but unfortunately they both left for Ireland. There is not enough sharing of information, I tried to do it with other unions, but some of the coaches were reluctant. (Former Lions coach) Johan Ackermann refused, saying why should he share information with the Sharks when he would be coaching against them in a few weeks. (Former Springbok assistant coach) Johann van Graan was very good at sharing information, but others weren’t. It’s not the same elsewhere. I’m paying for myself to go to Australia to learn from different sports and will join the Melbourne Rebels to upskill myself. I’m also seeing John Mitchell at the Bulls early next year to see how he does things.

How to coach juniors

We need to be coaching the right things at junior level. In South Africa an under-nine team plays 15-a-side, where only the eight, nine, 10 and 12 touch the ball frequently and everyone else is running around like headless chickens. Before I left the RFU, we broke the system down from under-nine rugby and they played seven-a-side on smaller pitches in something similar to tag rugby. Because it was seven-a-side there was more space and everyone got a chance to touch the ball. We coached them to catch, pass, tackle and evade, and there were no scrums or lineouts. At under-nine level in this country we’re lifting guys in the lineouts, we’re teaching them things that are not important at that age. I stand to be corrected, but the window of opportunity where you can coach general skills is seven to 13 years. It’s a small window to develop a player.

Schools system needs a revisit

The problem with our schools is that they are a system unto themselves, they’re independent of SA Rugby and don’t have to listen to them if, for instance, they say to them play tag rugby. We’ve actually got great schools’ rugby, but in the last two years of school the players are already playing patterns, instead of focusing on skills and decision making, because of the emphasis on winning. Also, after school, players learn to play according to the pattern of the union they join, which is not always to their strengths. We don’t have the big physical guys we had in the past. We need to coach coaches to coach them differently. We need to spend more time working out how we coach.

A passion for improving players

There’s a picture I have from the RFU of a guy and his under-9C team. At under-13 level, five of them made the under-13A side and three of them went on to make England under-18s. As a coach you have to be passionate about making players better and you’ve got to develop players on a long-term basis.

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