In an exclusive interview, three-time Super Rugby winner and former All Blacks back SCOTT HAMILTON talks about why South African rugby is in a good space, the Saracens salary-cap scandal and inviting Will Ferrell for dinner.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of South African rugby?
Scott Hamilton: South African rugby is in a pretty good place and the coaching side of things is better. Historically within South African rugby there seems to have been plenty of internal politics and if you are not successful that appears to be the aspect that comes out first. However, the Springboks have been going pretty well. The thing about South African sport, like New Zealand, is that they are always going to have top-quality athletes. It’s just about making sure that all key stakeholders are rowing the boat in the same direction and whoever is in charge, from a coaching perspective, is getting the best out of the players. It’s about trying to make them peak at the right time, which Rassie Erasmus did so successfully with the Springboks at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Sport24 asked: Is the All Black-Springbok rivalry still a real drawcard?
Scott Hamilton: Owing to the physicality of South African and New Zealand players the fixture is always keenly anticipated and there is always going to be a healthy rivalry between the two nations. However, owing to the fact South Africa and New Zealand play against each other so often I think the rivalry has dissipated and, as a New Zealander, I would much rather beat England... I may be based in the UK, but I certainly support the southern hemisphere sides when they play up here. The good thing about rugby is that whilst the All Blacks have been dominant for a while, the competitiveness of the likes of England, Ireland and Wales has got a lot better over the last 10 years. The consistency from the top sides has improved. It will be interesting to see how the All Blacks respond this season, having relinquished their World Cup crown. The men in black will be stinging from the World Cup but with a new coach in Ian Foster I’m sure there will be a few changes. I don’t necessarily think that the All Blacks will come out in peak performance because I’m sure there will be new things they will be trying to implement in their game. There are always massive expectations from the New Zealand public and the new All Black regime will have to wholly embrace the pressure.
Sport24 asked: What did you make of Ian Foster’s All Black selection?
Scott Hamilton: There is always plenty of competition for the All Blacks job but I’m not sure NZR were ready for a coach of Scott Robertson’s ilk. However, it’s easy to clamour for change just because the All Blacks got knocked out against England in the 2019 World Cup semi-final. Foster has been there and done that and I’m sure the men in suits would have done their due diligence by speaking to a few of the senior All Black players as well with regards to what Foster would bring. NZR have gone down the continuity route but it’s always a fine line between bringing in someone with new ideas and chopping and changing when things don’t go right. Foster has his own ideas and he knows the players so I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I don’t believe it’s black or white and think both Robertson and Foster would do a great job at the helm. Foster is going to be there for at least four years so it’s a long time in the coaching world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scott takes up an offer from a European side in the future because he could obviously earn far more money offshore than at home. From a financial decision, taking up a contract with a foreign club certainly makes sense. Maybe a short-term gig, of two years, would appeal to the three-time Super Rugby-winning coach, who could then return and continue to contribute to the oval game in New Zealand.
Sport24 asked: How do you rate the incumbent Springbok back three?
Scott Hamilton: The triumvirate of Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi complement each other and work well together. While Kolbe has been a bit of a revelation over the last couple of years, Le Roux is an interesting case study. I thought the fullback had a very average 2019 Rugby World Cup up until the final against England where he was probably one of the best players on the paddock. To be honest, he wouldn’t have been someone I would have selected because he seemed to be making quite a few mistakes. It just goes to show that certainly in this day and age we like to chop and change and get on the back of people. However, as Rassie Erasmus stressed there is no substitute for experience and Le Roux proved the point that he is a big-game player. It was highlighted by the fact that he made a massive impact on the final. To offer another example, everyone was calling for Dan Carter to be dropped before the 2015 World Cup as he was ‘past his best’ but he got better and better and was selected Man of the Match in the final against Australia.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the Saracens salary-cap scandal?
Scott Hamilton: The rules are there for a reason and every team in the Gallagher Premiership knows them. If you are going to bend, break or flout the rules then you have got to pay the price. If you bend the rules, like Saracens did, it goes without saying that you are going to get a better squad of players if you are paying more money than other teams are. It equates to an unfair advantage, therefore the punishment has to be such that reflects not only cheating but also dissuades other clubs from doing the same. Manchester City have done a similar thing to Saracens but I don’t believe football is comparable to rugby in the sense that City will fight it through an army of lawyers and with all the money they have got. If you are going to breach the rules, I believe you can’t really complain about the punishment. Saracens have to accept the decision Premiership Rugby came to and move on. With the decision taken to relegate Saracens, it will be interesting to see how many of the current players will turn out in the Championship. Will big players stay for less money or walk out? As was the case when I played at Leicester, there’s a relegation clause in players’ contracts. It will be interesting to see what comes of it because if Saracens’ top stars look to head overseas they will not be able to play for England because of their current policy of only picking domestic players.
Sport24 asked: Is NZ Rugby still correct in only picking locally-based players?
Scott Hamilton: I believe NZR are right because They need their marquee players to remain in New Zealand rugby. If NZR changed the rule a high number of Kiwis would end up playing in the UK and it would dilute the brand in New Zealand and the talent pool would diminish. When I was playing the game, you didn’t go overseas until you were in your late twenties to early thirties and now guys are going over around the age of 23. My most enjoyable years were playing in New Zealand and I certainly don’t regret not heading to the UK earlier. (Hamilton played two Test matches for the All Blacks in 2006). It’s tough now because sport is about the bottom line but the All Black brand is still very valuable. The pull of the All Black jersey is strong and would be the main reason why so many guys are still playing in New Zealand. However, there are a few players who have effectively turned their back on the black jersey. As a case in point, Charles Piutau left New Zealand shores at a very young age and is playing really well for Bristol these days. He would probably still be an All Black today if he had stayed at home but he had every right to head abroad. My primary motivation to head away was based on a financial decision and the fact that I could earn more money in Europe. However, my case was different because I only signed with Leicester Tigers in 2008 at the age of 28.
Sport24 asked: What aspect of play in rugby union needs urgent attention?
Scott Hamilton: For me, clearly the most dangerous part of the game is the breakdown and the jackal situation. It will be interesting to see what World Rugby does because you can get into that jackal position with your head and someone weighing 125kg can come in at full speed and smash you on the back of the head. At the moment, it’s legal to cleanout players at the breakdown in a forceful manner but it’s extremely dangerous as you can’t defend yourself. The breakdown is a massive part of rugby and what makes it such a good sport. If you take that contest away you don’t really have a game but the powers that be have to look at how they can make it safer. It would only take one freak shot in the side or a player getting it wrong in the back of the neck for it to have catastrophic consequences. I’m sure we will see clearer breakdown directives in the next year or so.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who would they be and why?
Scott Hamilton: From the film industry, I would invite Will Ferrell. I enjoy watching his movies and he would be a bit of a laugh. Sporting-wise, Michael Jordan would crack the nod. He is an incredibly competitive and driven individual. Last but not least, I would invite Homer Simpson. He would be a good man to have a beer with. I grew up watching the Simpsons and must say I still enjoy the show!