Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok assistant coach ALAN SOLOMONS discusses South Africa’s impending tour to Europe, why Pieter-Steph du Toit was deserving of SA Rugby’s premier individual accolade and the worrying player drain.
Sport24 asked: South Africa have named two squads for the end-of-year tour next month. Have they selected sagely?
Alan Solomons: By and large I believe that Allister Coetzee and his selection panel have done very well in picking their squads for the end-of-year tour. The Barbarians match next Saturday presents an ideal opportunity to give young players a chance at this level. A host of promising young players, who have shot to prominence on the domestic scene this year, have been included in the 30-man Springbok squad for the clash at Wembley Stadium. There are 12 uncapped players in total for the first fixture, which falls outside of the Test window. Meanwhile, in terms of the players selected to face England, Italy and Wales, Coetzee clearly appreciates the fact that he needs experienced campaigners for the trio of Tests. Players of the nature of Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, who represent Toulon and Leicester Tigers respectively, are going to contribute value and wherewithal to the cause. Without a shadow of doubt, Duane Vermeulen will be missed because he is powerful, physical and highly experienced. However, according to reports that I have read, Vermeulen doesn’t feel as though he is in good enough condition to play international rugby at the moment. Francois Steyn is another big miss for South Africa on this tour. I don’t know what the story is with Steyn, but his absence is being keenly felt. He is strong and abrasive and is an excellent goal-kicker. In my opinion, he is an outstanding rugby player. However, the Springboks boast enough talent to prove more than competitive against the northern adversaries they will tackle on consecutive Saturdays.
Sport24 asked: Pieter-Steph du Toit was named SA Rugby Player of the Year. Is he a worthy winner of the award?
Alan Solomons: Definitely. Du Toit is a world-class player and a phenomenal athlete. South African rugby is extremely blessed with fantastic young locks from which to select. The likes of Du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert all spring to mind. Du Toit is an enormous man, yet is very athletic and well-coordinated. Moreover, he scrums superbly, is a terrific lineout forward and is an intelligent footballer. In my book, Du Toit is the complete rugby player. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Curwin Bosch was another big winner on the night taking home the Junior Springbok Player of the Year award. When Bosch was at Grey High School everyone absolutely raved about him and thought that he was fantastic. When I was still plying my trade in Port Elizabeth, we had earmarked him to come to the Southern Kings and had an eye on the player we understood to be best suited to flyhalf. However, things changed, the deal never transpired in the end and he signed for the Sharks. Bosch clearly has an abundance of talent and has an exciting professional career in front of him.
Sport24 asked: Franco Smith, JP Ferreira and Louis Koen have joined the Springbok coaching fold. What will they add?
Alan Solomons: I had the privilege of coaching Franco Smith and even during his playing days there was no question that he would one day make an excellent coach. Franco did a great job with Treviso and has followed up his Italian club success by guiding the Free State Cheetahs to their first Currie Cup title since 2007. I feel that Franco will prove an asset to the Springbok coaching set-up. He can provide input in terms of backline play, skills and kicking. Similarly, Ferreira, who has been installed as defence coach for the end-of-year tour will add value to the team. Ferreira has proved very successful as part of the Lions coaching set-up and has served as the union’s defence coach and performance analyst for the past nine years. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Louis Koen as kicking coach for the duration of the tour is a smart move. Having coached Louis, I can attest to the fact that he knows the science of kicking inside-out and can work in tandem with Smith. He has grown into an excellent kicking coaching and I have no doubt that he will add worth during South Africa’s northern sojourn.
Sport24 asked: How will the national coaching indaba benefit SA rugby? Was it more than just a PR exercise?
Alan Solomons: Yes. I believe the national coaching indaba held in Cape Town last week was a positive development. It’s important to build an effective working relationship between the national and Super Rugby coaches. Although the relevant stakeholders are now going into it in more depth than before, I must stress that during my time with the Southern Kings the relationship with the national set-up was very good. Then Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer was often in touch and the Saru Mobi-Unit which was run by Rassie Erasmus, who has since moved on to coach at Munster, came to visit us in Port Elizabeth and there was a healthy exchange of views. I believe the indabas are certainly going to progress that relationship, which is positive. However, aside from singing from the same hymn sheet from a coaching point of view, comments have been made that structural issues need to be resolved within South African rugby and I believe that to be true. One of the crucial factors from a structural perspective is that I feel we need to follow the New Zealand model. There are effectively two main elements to the New Zealand model. Firstly, all the players are centrally contracted by the New Zealand Rugby Union and secondly, the Super Rugby franchises operate as distinct entities. The key to everything is control of the players.
Sport24 asked: There are around 300 SA players playing abroad. Is the haemorrhaging of talent a cause for concern?
Alan Solomons: Most certainly. In my view, one of the biggest challenges facing South African rugby at present is the huge number of young players and seasoned professional earning their keep abroad. We are bleeding so many players that it does make it difficult for us. The crux of the matter is that you need a blend of youth and experience and, at the moment, South African rugby is getting knocked every which way because we are losing young and seasoned players to overseas clubs. For my money, the balance needed between youth and experience is clearly missing. The primary concern is that really good professionals are leaving the system and they are being missed because they are invaluable in facilitating the development of younger players. I’m not talking about the Schalk Burgers and Habanas of this world. Said players deserve the opportunity of an overseas experience because they have given a massive amount to South African rugby. However, had Burger departed at the age of 26, it would have been a big loss for SA rugby. In terms of finding a workable solution, Japan is an excellent alterative to the UK and France and is the best option in order not to lose our players permanently.
Sport24 asked: Are we getting closer to realising a global season? How would the season be structured in your book?
Alan Solomons: The opportunity to implement a global season exists and World Rugby is working towards resolving the problem. At the moment, there is a massive overlap between competitions and they are generally extremely elongated. There is a concern for player welfare and, for me, less is more. In terms of a tangible solution, I would split the season into three phases with nine months of competitive action and a three month period with no rugby played at all. In the first phase you would play your domestic rugby, such as Currie Cup. The next phase would be reserved for cross-border rugby, such as Super Rugby, and the final phase would see international rugby and domestic development competitions running concurrently. Crucially, the latter competition would afford young players the opportunity to play at a higher level.
Sport24 asked: The All Blacks broke the consecutive win record at Test level. Why are they in a league of their own?
Alan Solomons: The All Blacks are an incredible side and are head and shoulders above anyone else in world rugby. The NZRU has done exceptionally well and everything is geared towards the All Blacks. Their systems and structures are excellent and run from age-grade rugby right through to the senior national side. For those who say you can’t perfect attacking rugby at Test level, I would beg to differ. Of course you can, as the All Blacks have shown to devastating effect. However, the key is found in decision-making and skill execution under pressure. As a team, the trick is to strike a balance in terms of how you play and to control the tempo of the game. It’s essentially what sets the All Blacks apart at present.