Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok assistant coach ALAN SOLOMONS talks about the inaugural PRO14 season, the sorry state of Australian rugby and previews the Test match in Salta on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Your analysis of South Africa’s win against Argentina in Port Elizabeth?
Alan Solomons: I thought the Springboks played really well. The 3-0 series win over France in June generated a healthy dose of confidence and you could see that in the way the players performed last Saturday. What was particularly pleasing to me was the way in which the Springbok scrum operated. The Boks were playing a Pumas side that is renowned for the scrummaging prowess and managed to dominate the South Americans at the set-piece. Malcolm Marx is exceptional and is without doubt the best hooker in the world. He makes an enormous difference in the scrum and I thought Coenie Oosthuizen (who was named man of the match) had his best game in a Springbok jersey. However, an effective scrummaging performance is an eight-man effort and the whole pack must take credit. Forwards coach Matt Proudfoot must also be applauded because it was a tremendous scrummaging performance. Overall, the Springboks continued to show that they are well-organised and the reason they came away with the win was because they played intelligent Test match football. Admittedly, Argentina turned over a fair amount of ball owing to handling errors, however, South Africa dominated the territory and possession stakes and grew stronger as the game unfolded.
Sport24 asked: Your take on the expanded PRO14 season which kicks off next month?
Alan Solomons: I believe it’s in the interests of South African rugby to have the Cheetahs and Kings playing in the PRO14. It’s an avenue where our two sides, who were relegated from Super Rugby, are playing professional rugby and strong competition develops coaches, players and administrators. However, the first season will be a challenging one for the South African sides. I understand that the organisers wanted to make it happen straight away, but it’s complicated particularly from the Cheetahs perspective. If you look at their programme they play against Ulster on 1 September and Munster eight days later. They also have Currie Cup games running concurrently. Their Currie Cup campaign is definitely going to be adversely affected because PRO14 will take priority. The Cheetahs may also be hamstrung by the fact that they are having back-to-back seasons. They have come out of a Super Rugby season directly into a Currie Cup campaign and their players go without a break straight into the PRO14. They are heading into a competition that is literally nine months long and it will be brutal. The Kings are in a totally different situation in the sense that they have had a complete break from Super Rugby. I believe the Kings, though not as strong as the Cheetahs from a playing point of view, are in a much more advantageous position because they are not having back-to-back seasons. (It’s interesting to note that local bookmakers have installed the Cheetahs as fourth favourites to win the PRO14). The Kings have lost a fair amount of players from their Super Rugby squad, but they have been given pretty good support from the powers that be and have been loaned players from other provinces. Deon Davids did a good job in Super Rugby and he has signed a three-year contract extension, so there is continuity in the coaching department.
Sport24 asked: Would you be in favour of the PRO14 paving the way for South Africa’s four remaining Super Rugby franchises to break away from the SANZAAR agreement after 2020?
Alan Solomons: No. I maintain that the way forward for South Africa’s remaining franchises it to stay within the southern hemisphere. We are one of the southern hemisphere powerhouses and need to be competing in Super Rugby against Australia and New Zealand. Northern hemisphere rugby has really come on in leaps and bounds, but I believe that South Africa belongs with the southern hemisphere. I don’t think it’s in the interest of our rugby (I’m not talking commercially) to leave Super Rugby. However, Super Rugby needs to have a look at the way it constructs the competition. Substantial changes have to be made to the format because it’s completely wrong at the moment and the conference system is a joke. The Lions were tremendous in the competition and fully deserved a final, but it was ridiculous that they didn’t play against any New Zealand teams prior to the playoffs. It was also absurd that the Brumbies were awarded a home quarter-final while the Hurricanes, who ended with more log points, had to travel. I believe the solution lies in less teams and everybody playing everybody. Super Rugby has the potential, if it’s reformatted, to be a great competition again. I coached the Stormers when we had the Super 12 and, even in 2013 when I was with the Kings, Super Rugby was a terrific competition because there was no conference system. The current format is evidently to the disadvantage of the game and we must have a merit competition.
Sport24 asked: The Wallabies were walloped in Sydney. Your view on Australian rugby?
Alan Solomons: When one reflects on Australia, their rugby is in a parlous state. Their Super Rugby season was diabolical and their teams were pathetic. The Wallabies were outclassed in the Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney and my guess is that they will take another hammering from New Zealand in Dunedin on Saturday. Credit to the Wallabies for scoring four tries and making the scoreline slightly more respectable but, if truth be told, at 54-6 the All Blacks took their foot off the pedal. The bottom line is the Wallabies were annihilated and the biggest problem they had was defensively. They weren’t urgent to set, didn’t get off the line quickly and, at times, they were too narrow. Off the field there are also major problems within Australian rugby. With the Western Force having been selected for the chop from the 2018 Super Rugby season, Rugby Western Australia has now won a leave to appeal application and will clearly take the matter all the way. The Western Australian government has also made it clear that they are going to take this fight to the nth degree. Australian rugby is in a helluva state and they have enormous off-field problems with litigation in the offing. Their troubles are reflected in their teams’ on-field performances and have been coming for some time. It seems to me that there is a lack of leadership in Australian rugby.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the off-field scandals engulfing the All Blacks?
Alan Solomons: The All Blacks are the top team in the world and the tallest trees catch the most wind. Let’s be honest, the hoopla was generated by the Australian media ahead of the Bledisloe Cup match. Maybe they were looking to distract the All Blacks. If so, it certainly didn’t work. New Zealand won’t lose their focus and I don’t think the off-field indiscretions have had any impact on the All Blacks’ on-field performances. Aaron Smith had a good game and it didn’t make any difference to his performance. Overall, the New Zealand Rugby Union is a very well-run organisation and it will deal with the Smith and Jerome Kaino matters in the correct manner. By and large, the All Blacks have been good role models, but the fact of the matter is that you are going to have incidents cropping up at times because you are dealing with human beings. The NZRU have good player education programmes in place and hopefully the players in question will learn from their mistakes and set the right example going forward for the next generation.
Sport24 asked: Your expectations ahead of the Test match in Salta on Saturday?
Alan Solomons: The Pumas will be up for the game and it’s a question of the Springboks meeting that challenge. I know it’s going to be a more closely fought contest, but I would like to see the Boks continue to build on what they have been doing. I believe there will be a bit of niggle in this game because Argentina got smashed in Port Elizabeth. I don’t agree with statements made about opponents getting under Eben Etzebeth’s skin. Etzebeth is a fantastic rugby player and handles himself well. He is doing a really good job captaining the side in Warren Whiteley’s injury-enforced absence and has developed into the best lock in the world. Argentina will be hurting after last week’s defeat and will come out breathing fire. However, I believe the Pumas have gone backwards. In June, England were missing two-thirds of their team, with players away on British and Irish Lions duty, and yet they beat Argentina in both Tests. In contrast, the Boks have built a solid platform. They are well-conditioned, their set-piece is dominant, their defence is solid and their kicking game is effective. My message to the team would be: Without in any way detracting from the other parts of our game, let’s continue to develop our attack because that’s the one way we are going to beat New Zealand later in the competition. Yes, we must defend well, but we have to be able to score tries. Meanwhile, much has been made of the Springboks taking to the field in a red jersey on Saturday. (The Boks will play in red for the first time in their history as part of a drive from SA Rugby to celebrate 25 years of South African rugby unity). Commercialisation has hit the game and we have to accept that. It’s not as if the Springboks are going to play in a red jersey every Test. As it’s a one-off, I think too much has been made of it.
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