Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok Sevens player and Ireland loose forward DION O’CUINNEAGAIN talks about the state of Springbok rugby, why SA can learn from the Irish system and previews the Test in Dublin on Saturday
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of Springbok and Irish rugby?
Dion O’Cuinneagain: I believe the current Springbok side are aware that they are going through a rebuilding phase. They will go into the game against Ireland on Saturday slightly nervous and, in my view, any Bok side with nervous energy is a dangerous beast and can perform exceptionally well on the day. Many South Africans had written the Springboks off after their 57-0 annihilation in Albany, but I remember saying to my work colleagues prior to the Newlands Test that I thought South Africa would come close to beating the world champions. This week, I saw ex-Irish centre Gordon D’arcy wrote in his column that the Springboks are a “troubled team.” I don’t agree with those sentiments and I reckon that Gordon is just trying to wind up the situation. The Boks have underplayed themselves and Allister Coetzee has talked up Ireland as a European version of the All Blacks. Crucially, this time the Springboks haven’t ventured to the north with an air of arrogance about them, which has happened in the past. Under Jake White, the Springboks went across to play Ireland and he declared at the time that the only Irish player that might have made the Springbok side was Brian O’Driscoll, but he would have been on the bench. In terms of finding chinks within the Irish armour, Ireland are blooding a few new players and I don’t think they will be as cohesive as they usually are because some of the players were part of the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, while others toured America. The bottom line is that Joe Schmidt’s charges aren’t going to be as cohesive because they have only all been brought back together and have a few injuries to deal with.
Sport24 asked: Will the off-field World Cup hosting battle add spice to the Test?
Dion O’Cuinneagain: It certainly will. Ireland are feeling more than a little disappointed that they were not selected as the front-runners to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Much has been said and written this week and I feel it will be an easy way for Schmidt to get the guys focused on the task at hand. The IRFU has said it will fight the Rugby World Cup 2023 bid recommendation to the bitter end. My understanding is that because the South African economy has been downgraded to junk status, they feel as though the South African government underwriting the World Cup doesn’t carry much weight. The Irish have also flagged security concerns and safety of visitors travelling to South Africa, which I don’t fully agree with. They have outlined that all the previous World Cup bids have gone through independent security reviews in order to rate the safety for tourists and apparently it wasn’t done this time around. I do think it’s going to be an interesting vote in London on November 15. South Africa boasts the infrastructure to host a highly successful Rugby World Cup. From a personal point of view, either Ireland or South Africa winning the vote would sit well with me. Selfishly, I would love to go back to Ireland for a Rugby World Cup, but at the same time I would take delight in hosting my Irish friends in South Africa to experience a World Cup in the country I live and work in. Both Ireland and South Africa would bring their own unique characteristics and I believe that either country would do a great job of hosting the showpiece. Reading between the lines, it appears as if South Africa has the inside lane at the moment, but anything could happen next week.
Sport24 asked: How would you compare the Irish system to that in South Africa?
Dion O’Cuinneagain: The Irish system is highly effective because they look after their talent exceptionally well. They have handed out approximately 90 professional contracts and all the players on their books are nurtured and developed. Whereas, on the South African front, we have so much talent within our country and I often feel as though the coaches are like kids going into a toy store. They play with one toy for a little while and then get bored and amuse themselves with another. They know that there are players out there that they can just go and grab. They don’t have the time to nurture, develop and create great internationals. You will often see that Ireland will chose an 18-year-old and he will end up being in the system for 10 to 12 years. I feel that type of experience cannot be bought. Moreover, the player exodus is a massive disadvantage for South African rugby. The seasoned professionals we have lost within our system would have been invaluable in terms of passing on their experience to the younger professionals. You need seasoned professionals to teach the youngsters about the culture of the teams, what the jersey represents and the nuances in terms of their positions. There is no way that any coach can teach someone like Duane Vermeulen the subtleties of eighthman play. However, if the latter was still playing his rugby in South Africa, he would be able to teach an up-and-coming eighthman exactly how to add elements to their game in order to make it at international level. I read Ollie le Roux’s comments this week that in order to coach the Springboks, you need to have been a Springbok. I must say that I don’t agree with that logic. I think that is a naïve comment from Ollie. There were many mentors I worked with who were excellent coaches and had never played at the highest level. For argument’s sake, Alan Solomons, who once played for the fourth-team at UCT, became a highly qualified and widely respected coach. Meanwhile, Eddie Jones and Graham Henry never played for their respective countries yet have excelled as professionals coaches. Past playing ability is not an indicator of future coaching success.
Sport24 asked: New Zealand-born Bandee Aki will debut for Ireland. Your take?
Dion O’Cuinneagain: I see that there has been a degree of criticism in the public domain owing to Aki’s inclusion. However, the Connacht-based player has been plying his trade in Ireland for quite some time now and he has qualified to play for his adopted country owing to the residency rule. It’s no different to players who hail from the Polynesians nations and qualify to play for New Zealand. And if you look at the Australian team, there is a plethora of players who get in by following that path. Personally, I don’t have a problem with players representing their adopted nations if they have been in the system and have qualified. Conor Murray came out in the media this week and said that he is fully in support of Aki and, as far as the team is concerned, they think the criticism is ridiculous. Another foreign-born player for Ireland is CJ Stander. I think he has done unbelievably well and he qualified in a similar manner as Aki. He did his time at Munster and broke into the national team. He is now an Irish rugby hero and was nominated as one of the Irish Sports Personalities of the Year in 2016. It speaks to his pulling power in a country where rugby is probably only the fourth most popular sport behind codes like hurling, Gaelic football and soccer. CJ has done amazingly well for someone who was not born in Ireland. To have developed a following of sports fanatics is incredible.
Sport24 asked: Having represented both nations where will your allegiance lie?
Dion O’Cuinneagain: On Saturday, my allegiance lies with the team in green (laughs). When Ireland play South Africa it’s always a tough day in the O’Cuinneagain household. I will be watching the game with my father and brothers and we will be equally happy and disappointed in terms of the result. It remains the only game where we don’t know which side to shout for. We support Ireland and South Africa against any other sides but, when they play against each other, it’s a half-victory. I played 19 Tests for Ireland and three times against the Springboks in 1998 when they were in their glory years under the leadership of Nick Mallett and captaincy of Gary Teichmann. I remember them as a most magnificent side and they represented the ultimate challenge. Having personally been in the inner-sanctum of the Irish change room, most people underestimate what it means to Irishmen to face the Springboks. Whenever the Boks are not the favourites, they are a proper team to beat. By the same token, I have no doubt that this Irish side will be fully motivated for Saturday because playing against the Springboks is always a very special occasion and it can prove career-defining. It’s clear that Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby is preparing for a physical confrontation up front. Players like Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx are going to have to bring their A-games like they did against the All Blacks in Cape Town. If the Boks fail to approach Saturday’s Test with the same level of intensity then they aren’t going to be able to compete with their hosts. The visitors need to start the game off well and not allow Ireland to build scoreboard pressure. If South Africa are able to get one over Ireland at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, they could enjoy an unbelievable tour and win four out of four. However, if they lose to Ireland, it’s going to prove a very tough four-week sojourn. I feel three victories from four Tests will be the only outcome the South African public would accept.
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