Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok assistant coach ALAN SOLOMONS talks about whether South Africa will be Rugby World Cup contenders, Johan Ackermann as next Bok coach and his time at Worcester.
Sport24 asked: Your take on South Africa’s heart-breaking defeat to New Zealand?
Alan Solomons: The All Blacks remain the number one side in world rugby and showed their absolute class to clinch victory from the jaws of defeat. You have to give New Zealand credit for coming back and winning the Pretoria Test in the last 10 minutes. However, it was a real pity because the Boks dominated the game both physically and tactically for between 65 and 70 minutes. South Africa have come on in leaps and bounds and, apart from the Test in Argentina where the Springboks had an off day, I thought they played well throughout the Rugby Championship. Hats off to Rassie Erasmus. He has done a splendid job. In terms of the Loftus Test, had Malcolm Marx, Faf de Klerk and Francois Louw in particular stayed on the field, the Boks would probably have seen out the win. It has now been confirmed Willie le Roux went off for an HIA in the 65th minute and was not able to return to the field. It’s not a poor reflection on the substitutes, it’s just that they don’t have equal experience and aren’t on the same level at this point in their careers as the players who were withdrawn. Marx has established himself as the best hooker in the world and De Klerk is playing out of his skin. He outplayed Aaron Smith on the day. Louw also had a terrific game and is very experienced. Having that thread of experience on the field makes a massive difference. Provided those players were fit and able to continue, it would have been prudent to leave them on the field.
Sport24 asked: What challenges await the Springboks on their end-of-year sojourn?
Alan Solomons: The November tour is going to be tough for the Boks because they won’t be able to put out their very best team if certain key players aren’t available. (The Test against England at Twickenham on 3 November falls outside the international window). However, the upside of that is that young players will get the benefit of playing Test rugby. All the sides the Boks are playing are good. France showed substantial improvement on their New Zealand tour, Wales and Scotland at home are never easy and England have plenty to play for and will be determined to prove themselves. It’s going to be a challenging November series for South Africa and they will have to be at their very best. If you look at the South African side, No 2, 8, 9, 10 and 15 - the spine of a team - are all critical players and some are irreplaceable. Marx, Duane Vermeulen and Handre Pollard will be in the fold, but the Boks will likely be without De Klerk and Le Roux. In South Africa, there is no scrumhalf in De Klerk’s league at the moment. I’m not saying local scrumhalves aren’t good players, but De Klerk is a step ahead of them at this stage. Embrose Papier, who has deputised for De Klerk is a young guy with talent, but at this point he doesn’t have what Faf has. I can understand De Klerk playing 472 of the 480 minutes across six matches in the Rugby Championship because it’s a big tournament and, as a coach, you are chasing results. However, what Rassie now has to do is develop his depth in certain areas, as it is only by playing in Tests that you develop the necessary experience.
Sport24 asked: Will the Springboks prove genuine World Cup contenders in 2019?
Alan Solomons: The Boks are definitely World Cup contenders and South African rugby is in a healthy state at this moment. If everyone remains fit and Rassie is able to build strength in depth over the November internationals and the period going forward, South Africa can challenge the All Blacks for world supremacy. The All Blacks will be World Cup favourites in Japan, but the Springboks boast terrific players right across the board. The Boks have a bloody good team and Rassie and his coaching staff have done a great job. The Boks had a real opportunity to beat the All Blacks in Pretoria and lay down a marker and give themselves confidence ahead of the World Cup. However, despite the loss, I’m very positive about South Africa’s World Cup prospects. If I were picking a World XV side at this moment, Le Roux, Marx and Eben Etzebeth, who is a world-class lock, would get in for sure. On current form, Pieter-Steph du Toit should also make the cut. He is playing outstandingly at No 7 and what it does is it bulks up the pack and offers an additional lineout option. In the back division, De Klerk and Aphiwe Dyantyi wouldn’t be too far away from World XV selection. In terms of the 24-year-old wing, he is an outstanding player. He has got X-factor about him, knows his way to the try-line and is a great finisher. He appears really comfortable at international level and enjoyed a terrific Rugby Championship. (Dyantyi was joint top try-scorer notching five tries in total).
Sport24 asked: For you, is Johan Ackermann a Springbok coach in the making?
Alan Solomons: Johan is a terrific bloke and an outstanding coach. I think Johan definitely has the ability to coach South Africa in the future. Rassie is doing a splendid job at the moment as director of rugby and national coach. Rassie is an astute rugby man and has the capability to manage both roles because he has an excellent work ethic. However, he’s not going to be the Springbok head coach forever. There will be a time when he takes the director of rugby job on a full-time basis and in the long-term, I see Johan as someone who can certainly coach the Springboks. He did a great job with the Lions and he is doing a fantastic job with Gloucester, who are a really good team. (Gloucester are in fourth place in the Premiership). In my mind, there is no question that Johan has the ability to step up and coach at international level at some stage. For now, Rassie is doing well as Bok coach and I think it was a terrific decision from him to appoint Siya Kolisi as captain. The loose forward performed really well in the Rugby Championship and led the side ably. He clearly stands out as the leader of the team. While there seems to be some conjecture, for me, Rassie won’t make a change in terms of the national captaincy. I see Kolisi leading the Springboks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Sport24 asked: How have you enjoyed your stay at Worcester Warriors so far?
Alan Solomons: Worcester is a really nice club, with great people and facilities. I started at Worcester in October last year and initially came in as a consultant. My job was to focus on the team remaining in the Premiership, which we did, and then I became director of rugby in January. Our recruitment has been pretty good, we have better strength in depth in the squad and some really good youngsters coming through. Lying seventh on the log at this stage is positive for the club, but we know that the season is a marathon and not a sprint. There is still a long way to go this campaign. The Premiership is a very high standard of competition and our first six games have been heavy. (Worcester have won two matches, with wins over Leicester Tigers and Bristol Bears). Every team boasts quality players and is well-prepared and well-coached... There is a South African flavour here at Worcester (in the form of Solomons, head coach Rory Duncan, defence coach Omar Mouneimne and the likes of GJ van Velze, Anton Bresler, Francois Hougaard, Nick Schonert and Francois Venter on the playing roster) but our long-term vision is to build a club through the medium of our academy. We have a flourishing academy and that is a real focus of ours. It’s great to see our young players rising through the ranks... In terms of Hougaard, he has been absolutely outstanding for us and has played some great rugby since signing for the club in 2016. He is also a great boy off the field and is making a huge contribution to our team. (Hougaard announced his retirement from international rugby early in 2018). Hougie had mentioned it (his decision to retire from Test rugby) and that’s his choice at the end of the day. He has made his decision and I respect it. It means he won’t be heading off for international duty and it’s great for us that he is here because he has been terrific. In the absence of De Klerk and Cronje, Northampton-based Cobus Reinach has been linked with an international recall. It makes sense because he is au fait with playing in the northern hemisphere. (Reinach played the last of 10 Tests in 2015 and remains hopeful of adding to his caps).
Sport24 asked: Is it time for South African rugby to ditch the SANZAAR alliance?
Alan Solomons: No. I remain firmly of the view that South Africa need to stay linked to the southern hemisphere. We need to be playing in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. The more we play against the New Zealand sides, the better. The Super Rugby format needs to be changed because you shouldn’t be able to reach a final without playing New Zealand teams. The best thing for South African rugby is to be involved in competition with New Zealand. We are a southern hemisphere nation and need to play in the southern hemisphere. The Cheetahs and Kings (both bottom of their respective PRO14 groups) are battling this season. South African rugby has lost a huge amount of players to overseas clubs (approximately 350 South Africans ply their trade abroad) and what I’m seeing at the moment is that the Cheetahs and Kings are struggling to be competitive in the PRO14.