Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Cheetahs coach NAKA DROTSKE talks about his second chance at life, who he rates as South Africa’s premier hookers and why Franco Smith is the right man to coach Italy.
Sport24 asked: How have you recovered since surviving a shooting last year?
Naka Drotske: I am getting stronger and better every week. My right arm still requires some rehab in the gym, but I am getting there. I am really grateful because I am otherwise 100 percent recovered. You read about those sorts of stories in newspapers and magazines in South Africa, but never think it (violent crime) is going to happen to you. Charging at the attackers was all instinct and I don’t remember much in terms of what I was thinking at the moment and how I would react. I am just glad it’s over and I’m back home... I have always been a competitive person and that really helped me pull through in hospital. The days in hospital, especially over Christmas and New Year’s, were really not nice and I spent 27 days in ICU. It was quite tough not being able to talk to those around me, but through the grace of god I pulled through. I know that I’m very lucky to be alive, as I lost about a third of my blood during the shooting. I have a second chance at life and am very happy to be alive and I don’t take any day for granted now. It was amazing to see the support I received from the public and it helped get me through. I am thankful to everyone who sent messages and prayed for me. It has been quite tough for my wife, Marzanne, who was basically by my bedside every minute. She refused to go home and really pulled me through and I am forever thankful to her.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Franco Smith’s imminent Cheetahs exit?
Naka Drotske: I think it’s a great opportunity for Franco to coach an international team, which is the dream of every coach when you start out. I believe he has a four-year deal with Italy and he knows the country very well, having played and coached there. He is the right man for the job. It represents a great opportunity for Franco and I wish him luck. In terms of potential successors, I’m not sure at all because I don’t know who is available, but there are some good coaches in South Africa. Hawies Fourie has done really well with Maties in the last few years, but it’s difficult for me to speak on someone else’s behalf because I don’t know who would be willing to take the job. I won’t be putting my name in the hat. You never say never, but at this stage I am enjoying life after rugby. I’m done with coaching and am in business right now. I had my opportunity and it was great. When I retired as a player in 2005, I went straight into management in 2006 and coaching in 2007. 2015 was the first time where I really got a gap away from rugby. There are definitely certain things that I miss from the game because rugby is in my blood. However, there are also opportunities away from the game and it allows me to spend more time with my family. Coaching is a high pressure job, especially with a smaller franchise like the Cheetahs, who will always struggle to keep their quality players. It’s really tough because as soon as you build a team the players leave for better opportunities, which doesn’t allow for continuity. There is definitely pressure in every coach’s job but especially at smaller unions.
Sport24 asked: Would you have liked to have tested your mettle in the PRO14?
Naka Drotske: I would definitely have liked to have coached in the PRO14. It would have been great to have tested myself as a coach in different conditions. It’s tough to say how I would have done in the northern hemisphere, but I would have loved to experience something different. Since my playing days until I finished coaching, it was Australia and New Zealand and we only toured the northern hemisphere with the Springboks at the end of the year. The PRO14 is a tough competition and the standard of rugby is good. The Cheetahs and Kings have struggled up north because the home teams know how to play in wet and muddy conditions. You can’t really compare the PRO14 to Super Rugby because they are two unique competitions and you have to adopt a different style of rugby when you are playing in the northern hemisphere. The Cheetahs and Kings didn’t really have a choice when SANZAAR decided that they would reduce the number of teams in Super Rugby. While they lost their opportunity to turn out in Super Rugby, I think playing in the PRO14 was a lifeline for them and presented a new opportunity playing in the northern hemisphere. For South African rugby, I think it’s great to have a presence in the northern and southern hemispheres. I definitely believe it’s the best of both worlds for SA rugby to have a foothold in the north and the south at this stage.
Sport24 asked: Who do you rate as South Africa’s best hookers at the moment?
Naka Drotske: In my opinion, Malcom Marx is the first-choice Springbok hooker. The way he plays in the loose and his ability to turn over ball makes him the best in the world. Marx is a match-winner with turn-over ball and can turn over more ball than openside flankers these days. Winning three or four penalties when the opposition is on attack can really change the game. When you are good at something like turn-over ball, then you essentially pick yourself. I believe he will be a certainty for World Cup selection. While he needs to work on his throwing into the line-out , the public are very quick to apportion blame to the hooker every time. However, the line-out caller needs to take the pressure off the hooker. In the past, Malcom has shown that he can be accurate with his throw-ins in crucial games. I think he must just get his confidence rolling before the World Cup. As for the second and third-choice hookers, I think it’s an open race. Schalk Brits has been playing really well for the Bulls and boasts all the experience having been all over the world. Though he is 37, he plays like a 27-year-old. Akker van der Merwe and Bongi Mbonambi, who are also playing well, will fight it out with Brits for World Cup tickets. France-based Bismarck du Plessis has all the experience in the world, but I wouldn’t bring him in to play off the bench because I think that is an opportunity for a younger player. With Marx at the peak of his powers, I wouldn’t opt to include Du Plessis in the side.
Sport24 asked: How do you rate the Springboks’ World Cup chances in Japan?
Naka Drotske: The Springboks’ opening pool game against the All Blacks is really important. Kitch Christie spoke in 1995 about either taking the high road or the low road. If South Africa beat New Zealand it will be the easier way and if they lose then it will be tougher. (If South Africa finish as runners-up in Pool B, they are set to play Ireland in the quarter-finals). Historically, South Africa have always done well at World Cups, especially in the play-off stages. If the Springboks play the right pattern and employ traditional South African rugby, as we have done in the past, we can beat the All Blacks and, for me, the opening encounter is 50-50. Although the Boks lost by a heavy margin in 2017 (57-0 in Albany) and the All Blacks had our number, the Boks bounced back last year and definitely reignited the rivalry. I feel the timing was perfect and I think the way the Boks pushed them in the last two matches will be in the back of their heads. Playing in the World Cup, pressure will be on New Zealand as defending champions to win the game against the Springboks... It’s quite tough at this stage because the South African teams are struggling a little bit in Super Rugby. However, I really believe we can field a great Springbok team for the World Cup. The World Cup is wide open where one of six teams can win the ninth edition. I reckon the Springboks stand a very good chance. In terms of tactics, I’m not sure what is in Rassie Erasmus’s head, but I would expect in-your-face defence from the Springboks. They will look to get off the line quickly and not give the All Blacks space and then play in the right areas of the field. I also foresee the Boks employing a tactical kicking game and it’s looking good because Handré Pollard is playing really well at this stage. In all the World Cups, especially against the better teams, it’s been about low scores and pressure rugby.
Sport24 asked: If you could invite dream dinner guests, who would they be?
Naka Drotske: I would extend an invitation to Tiger Woods. It was really amazing for him to come back and win the Masters after a 14-year hiatus. Nobody gave him a chance and everybody thought that after winning his last Major that was it. With all the younger players now on the tour, few gave the 43-year-old a shot. It was great to see how he handled the pressure and came back to win. To have bounced back from all the personal issues in his life, coupled with a back injury and knee surgery is no mean feat. It’s amazing what he has accomplished. In terms of my other guests, I love Ed Sheeran and it would be good to have him over. I’m also a big Neil Diamond fan and it would be ideal to meet him. Hailing from Bloemfontein, steak and chips would be on the menu for us to enjoy.