Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Melbourne Rebels head coach DAVID WESSELS talks about the Bulls biting incident, coaching the Wallabies one day and the clash against the Stormers at Newlands on Friday.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess your maiden season in charge of the Rebels?
David Wessels: We are on a journey and want to be successful, but that is not going to happen in five minutes. (The Rebels have won four of eight matches and are second in the Australian conference). We are a new team and organisation and I feel we should be proud of the progress we have made. We are working very hard and are enjoying some success. However, the biggest win of all is that we are playing for each other and the people of Melbourne. Those two elements will drive us a long way. We are playing like a team and look like one. That is an achievement for a franchise that came last in Super Rugby in 2017. In terms of game approach, I encourage the team to attack and play with ball in hand. We have been quite successful in that regard and have scored the third-most tries in the competition this season. However, even more than that we need to play with spirit and intensity and, regardless of the scoreline, never give up. That is what the people of Melbourne expect and that is what we are striving to do as a team. I would hope there wouldn’t be those people that feel the Rebels shouldn’t be competing in Super Rugby. I certainly feel like we are slowly but surely improving every time we take to the field. Sometimes it’s in the way we play and other times it’s in the way we prepare. We want to create a culture that can see us have long-term success. For me, building a team that can genuinely compete in Super Rugby is special. Had I left Super Rugby at this stage of my career (having been retrenched by the Force) I would’ve regretted it.
Sport24 asked: Do you harbour coaching ambitions with the Wallabies in the future?
David Wessels: As I have said before, I’m miles away from the Wallabies job. I'm trying to be successful at provincial level, which is below Test level. As a Springbok supporter, I grew up hating the Wallabies. When I first coached in Canberra with the Brumbies, I sat at a desk next to Stephen Larkham and I think we didn’t speak for the first two or three months as I found it too difficult. However, I now have two children born in Australia and it has been a great place to live since 2011. In terms of one day coveting a coaching role with the Wallabies, I think every coach wants to measure themselves at Test level, but I’m really enjoying the job I have now. We boast a unique group of people that want to win and are prepared to make real sacrifices in order to do so. I don’t want to be thinking about the next moment. I want to live in this moment and enjoy what I’m doing. If Michael Cheika vacates his position as Wallabies head coach after the 2019 Rugby World Cup it will be a hard act to follow. Michael is one of the very few coaches that have been enormously successful in northern and southern hemisphere rugby. (He has won the Heineken Cup as well as Super Rugby). He has done a good job with the Wallabies and guided them to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final. However, I feel his legacy won’t just be in terms of on-field results. The ARU are working very hard on some of the high performance systems in-behind the Wallaby level and are looking at better alignment in terms of strength and conditioning, medical and skills coaching etc. Michael’s big legacy to Australian rugby at this point in time will be some of the work he is doing around that stuff.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the Bulls’ SANZAAR complaint due to your tactics?
David Wessels: It’s master coaching from John Mitchell. He is an experienced coach and is trying to distract from the fact that one of his players did something like biting, which he shouldn’t have been doing. (Bulls prop Pierre Schoeman, found guilty of biting a player in his side's 28-10 win over the Rebels, has copped a six-week ban). I can’t comment on the length of the ban, but biting is a cowardly act and everybody knows that there is no place for it in the game. John’s player misbehaved in a way that is far more serious to SANZAAR than slowing the game down because players can get seriously hurt. John is trying to divert the issue into something else and make sure that he can play the game on his terms. The reality is that we played the game against the Bulls last Saturday at our tempo and how we wanted to play it rather than have the game imposed on us by the opposition. Our job was not to go and entertain the Loftus crowd, but instead to win for the people of Melbourne. I’m not too fussed about what John said post-match. (Mitchell labelled the Rebels’ tactics “totally negative”). To be clear, we wanted to slow the game at the appropriate times and play with a burst of energy at other times. I thought we managed that well. I’m sorry if our tactics upset John, but the fuss he is making about it deflects from the real issue, which is the biting.
Sport24 asked: What will Rassie Erasmus bring to the Springbok fold as head coach?
David Wessels: I worked with Rassie during my time at the Stormers as defence consultant in 2008 and he is an incredibly smart guy. He could be the head of a very big organisation in any sphere of life. He is going to bring a different dimension to the coaching group and I think it’s a fantastic appointment for South African rugby. On the back of his appointment, I foresee an upsurge in the Springbok performances. He has single-mindedness in terms of wanting to win and always finds a way to get things done. Winning is never a straight line, so you need someone like Rassie who has a dogged-mindedness and, even if he is told no in the first instance, he is going to try to find a way to get it done. At that level, I reckon that is a huge asset and I feel the players will respond to said approach. In the history of European rugby, Rassie is the most successful coach in terms of win percentage, which underlines how good he is. The appointment of Jacques Nienaber, who is absolutely world-class as a defence coach, will also make a massive difference to the Springboks. There is too much talent and passion for rugby in South Africa for the Springboks not to bounce back. I don’t foresee the Springboks sitting in sixth place in the World Rugby rankings for very long. In terms of off the field, what South African rugby needs to do is figure out how to minimise their cost base by spending less on lower levels of rugby. They need to try to get those costs absorbed at either school or university level by those institutions, and then spend more money at the top end of the game in an effort to retain the best talent in the country. That is the only solution that I can see.
Sport24 asked: Your view on Jake White’s idea of picking black Boks against Wales?
David Wessels: I think it’s helluva sad that we are still talking about a lack of transformation within a South Africa rugby context. One of the reasons for that is because there are too many people who haven’t fully committed to it. However, if you take cricket as an example, some of the best players in the world are black. It’s because cricket committed in a very real way to transformation a long time ago. For whatever reason there are still certain people in rugby that have resisted it. Therefore, we keep having to talk about transformation. We need to be genuine about transformation and everybody in rugby needs to get behind it and find a way to make it happen. (Government has instructed that the national squad must comprise 50% players of colour for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Erasmus has revealed that he has a target of 45% for his first year at the helm of the Boks).
Sport24 asked: What is your outlook ahead of the showdown against the Stormers?
David Wessels: When I was at university in Cape Town (Wessels graduated with a Bachelor of Business Science and has also completed his Masters in IT) I never missed a Stormers home game. I know that they are a different kettle of fish at Newlands, having watched many matches in the Mother City. The Rebels have never won a game in South Africa, so we have to get our head around that challenge. If we can play with the same intensity that we did against the Bulls and finish off a few more of the opportunities we create, then we can put ourselves in a position to do well. Like us, the Stormers are a young team and people have to be patient because you don’t start playing like the log-leading Lions overnight. Robbie Fleck has a tough job because expectations on the Stormers coach are considerable. People expect wins from the Stormers, with around half of the top 10 schools in South Africa coming from the Western Cape and two big rugby universities. Contrary to what critics say, I think the Stormers have evolved in terms of the way the play over the last two or three years. It’s a question of whether people (the men in suits and supporters) are prepared to stick with it for long enough so that it bears fruit. The bottom line is that organisations need show faith in some of their decisions. I know Fleckie is a good coach and can turn the corner. (The Stormers are rock bottom in the South African conference and are 12th on the combined standings). As coaches, we all feel for each other when we see one of our contemporaries under pressure because, at some point, you know it’s going to be you. Death, taxes and coaches being fired are the certainties in life.
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