John McFarland chats to Sport24

John McFarland (Gallo Images)
John McFarland (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok defence coach JOHN MCFARLAND discusses the influx of South African players in Japan, England’s transformation under Eddie Jones and previews the Springboks’ clash with the Barbarians on Saturday.

Sport24 asked: You served as national defence coach for four years. What are the pillars of a well-functioning defence?
John McFarland: First and foremost, I believe that attitude is the most important element on defence. Players need to bring a great attitude, impressive work-rate and intensity to their efforts on defence. From a technical perspective, the quality of the tackling, the ability to dominate the collision and win turnovers, by either stealing at the breakdown or by counter-rucking, are essential items. Moreover, preparation for the opposition play-sheet is critical because you want to negate their strengths and stamp your authority on the contest. I feel very honoured to have coached at the highest level of the game in South Africa and defence was a strong suit of the Springbok make-up during my four-year tenure. I am also proud of the fact that during the 2015 Rugby World Cup we essentially only conceded tries through interceptions, regained high-balls or turn-overs, and levelling it down to one line break and a solitary try against us per match was rather pleasing.

Sport24 asked: The Springboks have leaked a plethora of tries this season. What has contributed to the dysfunction?

John McFarland: I’m certainly not going to criticise the defence coaches whom the Springboks have employed since I vacated the position post-Rugby World Cup. The main reason is because I have been in that particular job and know how tough it is. However, it’s telling that the Springboks are now onto their third defence coach - JP Ferreira - after nine Test matches this term. (Jacques Nienaber oversaw the inbound Test series against Ireland, while Chean Roux was in charge during the Rugby Championship). The Springboks obviously need to improve their defensive system, and the fact that there has been a lack of coaching continuity has ultimately been to the national team’s detriment. With each defence coach, different systems are implemented which is difficult for the players to pick up over a short period of time. The change of coaching personnel has proved unsettling for the players and in order to move in the right direction and attain positive year-end results, I believe the players need to gain confidence in the systems and structures Ferreira is putting in place.

Sport24 asked: A host of South African players are now plying their trade in Japan. How have they found the transition?

John McFarland: As assistant coach of the Kubota Spears, from first-hand experience, the South African players enjoy the chance to experience a different rugby environment and culture. All the South African players who have joined our team - Jaco Kriel is the latest addition - have commented that you can learn a lot from the Japanese in terms of work ethic. Due to the fact that most of the Japanese players are amateurs, they go off to work in the morning and then come in for three hours of training in the afternoon. From a coaching point of view, it’s a very different environment in which to operate but it’s certainly a stimulating one. It’s interesting because you don’t coach through your native tongue but rather by way of an interpreter. Meanwhile, you can only play three overseas players per match, so you have to rotate them. Most of the Lions players are in Japan during Super Rugby’s off-season and if you ask Rudolf Straeuli, I’m sure that he will say it’s a positive development. Franco Mostert could have been lost to SA rugby had he gone to Lyon but, with a dual contract signed with the Lions and Ricoh Rams, he is able to stay in SA and earn good money in Japan which is on par with salaries in Europe.

Sport24 asked: What do you make of the Barbarians team selected for Wembley and what will SA gain from the game?

John McFarland: Normally, the Barbarians team boasts players who are recently retired from Tests or who are truly world-class players. No disrespect to the players who have been selected by Robbie Deans to tackle the Springboks at Wembley Stadium, but I don’t regard this as a really strong Barbarians outfit. The men wearing black and white will certainly give the ball air and stay true to Barbarian tradition. However, I foresee them leaving plenty of turnovers on the floor. Saturday’s encounter presents an ideal opportunity for the young players on the fringes of the Test squad to gain some invaluable experience of the Springbok culture and system. I foresee Jean-Luc du Preez making a big impact on the November tour. He possesses the athleticism and size to do well in Test rugby. He can knock players backwards and carry with destructive force. Staying in the back row, there is a chance for Roelof Smit to stake his claim at openside flank owing to Jaco Kriel’s injury. Meanwhile in the back division, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter will team up to form a promising midfield combination. Both are exciting young talents. In terms of Janse van Rensburg, he is a very powerful, explosive centre, is a strong ball-carrier and is certainly a handful for any defence. His opportunity is now. It will be interesting to see if Allister Coetzee decides to give him a go against England having handed him a starting berth against the Barbarians. For the Springboks, their clash with England at Twickenham next Saturday will prove pivotal and I feel that everything should be geared towards winning that Test. I’m of the view that South Africa may choose to employ a conservative game plan against the Barbarians because, at the end of the day, it’s about bedding those players in with what is needed for England.

Sport24 asked: Having worked with Morne Steyn are you surprised that he has been snubbed for the autumn Tests?

John McFarland: Yes. South Africa beat Australia in Pretoria by effectively employing a territory-driven approach but two Tests later and Steyn is out of the picture altogether. Coetzee brought him back but he is now out of the mix again which is a bit perplexing to me. If you picked Steyn two Tests ago and you said you were returning to your traditional strengths then surely you would want to continue with him at flyhalf because he boasts the ability to put the team in the right positions to gain penalties or to get their forward strengths into play. You need a strong tactical kicking game at Test match level and attacking kicks come into play. Chips behind the defence line are useful especially if the opposition utilise a rush defence.

Sport24 asked: As an Englishman, what’s your take on England’s transformation since their shock World Cup exit?

John McFarland: England have improved greatly a year after their egregious pool stage exit at their home World Cup. The three-nil series whitewash over Australia in June is evidence of the progress they have made under Eddie Jones. Jones is permanently in the media and telling the world what he is up to. His latest move has seen the addition of Melbourne Storm assistant coach Jason Ryles to his backroom staff on a short-term basis in an attempt to shore up his defence. I believe it’s to South Africa’s credit that Jones feels as though he needs something special for the Springboks. Jones is searching for that extra one percent which will make an improvement to his overall system. While England have proved impressive in most facets of play under the guidance of Jones, the fact of the matter is that they conceded 10 tries against Australia during the three-match series... The England versus South Africa Test promises to be an exciting clash because Coetzee’s men are intent on starting from scratch and restoring Springbok pride after their record home defeat to the All Blacks in Durban. Coetzee will aim to marry ideas and pick strategies which he believes are best to beat a well-coached England side.


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