- Former Junior World Cup-winning national coach Eugene Eloff assesses South Africa’s Rugby Championship campaign and hits back at critics who’ve called the team unworthy.
- The ex-Lions coach talks about the South African franchises’ early struggles in the United Rugby Championship and why he feels refereeing interpretation is one of the obstacles.
- The Paarl-based mentor, who called time on his senior professional coaching career, also discusses the release of Siya Kolisi’s autobiography and what he admires about the man.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of South Africa’ third-place Rugby Championship finish?
Eugene Eloff: Sports teams in general don’t like to finish in third place so in that sense the Springboks will be disappointed. However, the well-worn cliché of only being as good as your last game rings true. Almost everyone predicted that the Springboks were going to get klapped by the All Blacks on the Gold Coast but the Boks delivered in the 101st Test meeting. Prior to the milestone centenary Test match in Townsville, the New Zealand Herald ran with the headline: “Unfit, unskilled, unnerved” in reference to the Springboks. They did it to stir the reader but it also had the effect of motivating the opposition players. When you hear that you are over-rated as world champions that serves as a motivator. The high of the tour for the Springboks was their 31-29 win against the All Blacks and the low was back-to-back defeats against the Wallabies. The Wallabies were hungrier and I think we underestimated them. It was a wake-up call because they have great athletes in that team… If we can take one thing from this year’s Rugby Championship it’s that we have the players that can do it but we need to change how we play.
Sport24 asked: What aspects of the Springboks’ game plan must change?
Eugene Eloff: The Springboks need to get away from their pattern of play where there is an over-reliance on kicking. I personally think the Boks are kicking too much. The forwards work very hard to get the ball and if they kick it back and lose possession, it’s energy sapping. Turn-over ball is something you counter-attack with and the worrying aspect is that when the Boks got vital turnovers particularly in the first Test, they kicked back to the All Blacks. There is a place in the game for box kicks but there is also a place for tactical, attacking kicking. The aim should be to always kick with purpose. Everyone talks about the players being under instruction (from the coaching staff) to execute the kicking game but the reality is that they buy into a certain game plan. That game plan worked for the Boks at the World Cup and it’s easy to criticise the tactics from the side-lines. If things work for a coach, you stick to it. However, rugby evolves and if you don’t move with the times you will fall behind. I think Jacques Nienaber has realised he needs to divert from a traditional kicking game, which the Boks did against the All Blacks in Test two. From broken play and turn-over ball, the Springboks are just as dangerous as the All Blacks.
Sport24 asked: Is Nienaber coming into his own now as Bok head coach?
Eugene Eloff: I believe so and think Rassie Erasmus’s absence from the tour to Australia was the best decision they made. It gave Jacques some individuality within the team because everyone was saying that Rassie was still running the show. Rassie was actually supporting him and was not running the team but rather delivering messages when giving water. With Rassie staying in South Africa, it just showed the people and gave Jacques some time on his own with the team. People can now see that Jacques is the Springbok head coach and he is coaching. Jacques and Rassie will always be a team – as evidenced by the video on social media with two communicating on their laptops – and you can never take that partnership away… I don’t think Rassie used the pending World Rugby hearing as an excuse to stay behind in South Africa. Rassie is an open guy and I don’t think that had any influence. (The case will be heard on 30-31 October). After the end-of-year tour, the Springboks management will get together and have a strategic workshop. They will assess the pros and cons and look at what worked and what didn’t. If the requirement is that the Boks need a permanent defence coach so that Jacques can focus all his attention on the head coach role then so be it. If Jacques feels the pressure and workload is too much, they Boks may bring in a defence consultant. The modern tendency is to have smaller management groups and bring in specialist consultants for a period of time. I believe that we need to look at coaches in our own country first because we have some great coaches and then after that maybe look abroad. But if you want to be the best, you have to get the best.
Sport24 asked: Is there value in the Springboks hiring a sports psychologist?
Eugene Eloff: I believe in employing a sports psychologist but they are not there because the team has mental problems. The psychologist plays a big role in terms of creating the right atmosphere in the team and the value system. When there is trauma within the team - such as a death in the family or divorce - the psychologist needs to be there. Covid-19 has also highlighted mental health awareness and, with the Boks living an unnatural existence in bio-bubbles since 2 July, having a kop doctor makes sense. It’s easy to say, “Ja but these guys are professional rugby player and earn big salaries.” Yes, it’s a fact but the circumstances outside of that have a huge influence. I feel that we need to have more empathy and look to understand the situation because we don’t know what happens behind closed doors. I take my hat off to the players, and the one thing the Springboks have shown they can do is adapt. I would say that 90% of the game is mental. Being isolated and confined to bio-bubbles has been tough for the players and I don’t think too many people have any idea of the psychological effect it has on the players’ wellbeing.
Sport24 asked: Your review of Siya Kolisi’s raw and honest autobiography?
Eugene Eloff: Some people may question the timing of the release of his book - Rise - but when is the timing ever right? I always say yesterday is history and you can do nothing about it. Tomorrow is so uncertain and you can only control the now. If he felt the time was right to launch a book, more power to him. I believe you need to say what you need to say and do what you need to do. In terms of the content of the book, Siya being open and honest about his struggles says a lot about his character. It speaks to him as a person. He owned up to a problem, addressed it and has nothing to hide... He has been highly criticised for many reasons and his leadership and playing ability has been questioned in the past. Like any other player, he has been through the mill but he has risen to the challenge. The whole nation is proud of the way he has played and I think he had a fantastic Rugby Championship. Siya inspires many people as does the whole Bok team. Our young kids must always have heroes that they can look up to. My philosophy with players is simple. I tell them to be a role model and be approachable to the people that love watching them play. Players must be human and kind because we need heroes.
Sport24 asked: Your view on SA’s United Rugby Championship struggles?
Eugene Eloff: I must say their struggles in the Vodacom URC have caught me off guard because I thought we would fare better. While our players have had a long season, I don’t think we can use it as an excuse. Our teams need to adapt as soon as possible. The pace of the game is quicker and we have to make less mistakes. The teams we are playing against are better equipped and it will take some time to bed into the competition. The South African teams need to make a step up and start winning games. This is not Currie Cup - it’s an international competition and you need to have a different approach. It’s something of a wake-up call for the South African teams but we are survivors. It will take us a few weeks and then we’ll be back in the mix. The biggest point of difference is the weather patterns and heavier fields. However, the rules and the field size is the same and our players need to be fitter, stronger and quicker. You also need to be better-skilled and have a great game plan... There has been plenty controversy about referees, and the national rugby body needs to look at the standardization of refereeing all over the world. They need to upskill referees to be on the same level because consistency has been a problem. I don’t necessarily think it’s northern versus southern referees. For argument’s sake, the interpretation of the laws between the French and Irish referees is day and night even though the rules are the same. That is why there is a need for standardisation of the training and referees must be held accountable. A coach is accountable for a team’s performance and so too should referees because poor decisions have a huge influence on a team and a coaches’ future. Going forward, any decisions World Rugby make must be in order to improve the game overall.
Eugene 'Loffie' Eloff, who coached the Lions in Super Rugby and Austin Huns in America, is now part of the technical coaching team at Elite Sport Mentorshipwith a focus on game dynamics.He is currently involved at Curro Langebaan with a focus on coaching the coaches, mentoring and guiding the process of establishing an ideal environment in which children can train.