EXCLUSIVE | Former Junior Springboks, Lions coach chats to Sport24

Eugene Eloff (Gallo Images)
Eugene Eloff (Gallo Images)

In an exclusive interview, former Junior Springboks and Lions coach EUGENE 'LOFFIE' ELOFF talks about the positives that may ensue for rugby from the pandemic, the doping culture at schoolboy level in South Africa and his mentorship company...

Sport24 asked: What impact do you expect Covid-19 to have on the rugby landscape?

Eugene Eloff: I believe the rugby world is going to undergo a facelift. The fraternity was battling financially and now even more so because of the pandemic. A lack of TV revenue and bums on seats is hurting the game and more and more big unions around the world are letting players go because there are too many that are contracted. Going forward, unions are going to have smaller contracted groups and less junior players on their books. All the unions are going through a tough time and there is no definite date when rugby will return. I’m of the opinion that one should write off 2020 and plan for 2021. Credit to the players for staying fit in isolation but the reality is that you need to do your fitness with your team in a structured playing system. If you do 100 sprints on your lawn it’s not going to keep you contact and rugby-fit. However, with every negative situation I believe there is something positive. It’s time to rethink where we are and where we are going within the game. I foresee the face of Super Rugby changing and becoming a totally different competition internally, with the top teams playing against each other… I love the idea of international tours returning. The idea of the British & Irish Lions or All Blacks embarking on a tour to South Africa is exciting because, besides them playing Test rugby against our national side, they will also get to tackle the Super franchises. There is definitely going to be plenty of change and, reading between the lines, it seems like there will be less rugby based upon affordability.

Sport24 asked: Will newly-appointed Jake White prove a hit or a miss at the Bulls?

Eugene Eloff: The Bulls have been going through a tough time. They had Alan Zondagh there as director of rugby and bought into Pote Human and the management system but it seems that it has let them down. Jake is now at the helm and the pressure is on him because he has said it will be easy to contract players for the Bulls. However, I see there are already quite a few players who have said that they are leaving. On the plus side, the union has a director of rugby who has walked the walk. Jake has coached at school, junior and senior level and has won a World Cup. He has also been all over the world so he boasts the experience. His more conservative approach will fit in perfectly with the Bulls because that is the culture they have in Pretoria... The supporters will expect to see positive change overnight but it doesn’t happen in that way. I think Jake has matured in terms of his coaching style and that is crucial because if you don’t adapt to the modern style of coaching and rugby, you are dead and buried. With age and experience, I’m pretty sure Jake has moved away from the autocratic coaching style which says: “I’m the coach, these are the rules and you will follow whatever I say.” Coaches these days work with intelligent players and it’s about empowering them and facilitating the process. You have to understand the strategic and technical aspects of the game but in modern rugby you are much more of a man-manager. The director of rugby role is very valuable but Jake shouldn’t be involved in day-to-day coaching. I don’t know if it’s his choice to perform both roles but, while he likes control, he will also take responsibility for the outcome. The Bulls have most probably asked him to coach the Super Rugby team because results have not been forthcoming and everybody has been moaning and groaning. I’m sure Jake will also empower his assistant coaches. If Jake’s approach works at the Bulls, there will be accolades and high-fives but if it doesn’t the pressure will be immense. Fans are quick to criticise coaches and label them ‘useless’.

Sport24 asked: Are you done and dusted with senior professional coaching?

Eugene Eloff: I’m done with coaching at senior professional level and I’m not going to stand with a whistle on the field. After winning two Junior World Championships with South Africa I thought I had of chance of coaching the Springboks but it just didn’t pan out that way and I’m okay with that. Of course I would have liked to have coached the Springboks but it is a lonely job and maybe I was saved from the pressure. What I do now with my 29 years of coaching is mentoring of the coaches. I share my coaching philosophy and what worked and what didn’t. I’m mentoring a few coaches abroad as well as players and parents through my company Elite Sport Mentorship. In the new year, I’m going to possibly bring in a few teams from America and Europe on a 12-day course. I will teach them the culture of rugby, team work, leadership and mental toughness. The Springboks are deservedly the world champions and it makes sense for other players to learn from our rugby culture. Like life, rugby works in cycles and one moment you are at the bottom and the next you are at the top. In order to build on our World Cup success, the key characteristic is to stay humble. There is nothing wrong with being proud in terms of what you have achieved but the moment you think you’ve arrived, you are done.

Sport24 asked: Do you believe that it is time for change at World Rugby?

Eugene Eloff: I think Bill Beaumont has done a wonderful job during his time as World Rugby chairman but we need change. It seems to be that everything has been centralised around the northern hemisphere which has suited them more. A change in the form of Agustin Pichot coming in as chairman and Jurie Roux taking up the role of CEO wouldn’t be a bad thing. I know that the pair have a good working relationship. The older crop of administrators should make way for the next generation to come in and facilitate the growth of the game. If Jurie moves on it will also open the door for somebody new to come in at SA Rugby. I’m still firm in the belief that the administrators who head your organisation should be top businessmen. They don’t necessarily need to know the game of rugby that well but must understand the dynamics of a business. In light of the pandemic, it’s now going to be even more important that you have businessmen in place who can manage the finances and generation of income in order for the organisation to survive. It’s going to be interesting to see the strategic vision after the new World Rugby board is elected as they will offer direction to the rest of the world.

Sport24 asked: What do you make of the Aphiwe Dyantyi doping case?

Eugene Eloff: I feel sorry for players like him who people are very quick to crucify. I believe the situation came about owing to a lack of mentorship. People close to him such as his agent, coach and CEO have a duty to play a role. A lot of guys out there tell players that certain products aren’t banned and those supplements won’t show up in urine and blood tests. It’s up to the unions to inform the players in terms of banned substances and the team doctors are clued up on that. Sometimes players make mistakes and they are not always aware of what they are using. Other times, it’s an individual choice if a player uses substances which they don’t announce to the medical staff. Johan Ackermann is an example of a former player who served a doping ban and got back on the field and found his best form. I hope that Dyantyi has a mental backup that supports him and sees him through this trying time. The key for him is to stay motivated so that he can return and say, “Listen, I made a mistake but I’m back!” At the peak of his powers, Dyantyi was standing a foot away from his world which was about to explode and the next moment he fell into a hole. It is a hard lesson to learn and comes at cost - not only financially but also mentally and spiritually. If he can overcome those hurdles, he will come back stronger. In terms of doping in South African rugby, there is a fine line between using a legal substance and an illegal one. There have always been rumours of players taking illegal supplements during the off-season. You have to work hard in order to win and won’t prosper in the long-term by cheating the system.

Sport24 asked: How rife is the doping culture at schoolboy level in South Africa?

Eugene Eloff: There have been quite a few reports in the past few months in terms of the use of substances at schoolboy level and that is scary. There is already pressure on the kids to perform and especially at the big rugby schools. When players want to gain a competitive advantage they will head to the gyms and be influenced by guys who look like the Incredible Hulk. They will use anabolic steroids because they want to get bigger and stronger. I believe the use of illegal substances is more serious at school level than it is at international level because the players at unions know they can lose their contracts. It looks like it’s the age group from 15 to 18 where kids most use supplements and some of it is illegal. I have no problem with players using a reputable supplement for recovery and building muscle mass but the use of illegal substances can have an adverse long-term effect on their longevity. By the time they start showing kidney or liver problems, it’s too late. From a subjective point of view, you have to weigh up the times of glory you would have for those few years versus becoming a lekker ou toppie like me that is still healthy. Coaches should be more like father figures to players. You don’t have to change their nappies but you must warn them about the challenges in life and prepare them accordingly because it’s not easy out there. A coach’s role extends further than blowing a whistle on the field and preparing the players tactically. It’s essentially about readying them for life post-rugby.

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