Rugby Championship

EXCLUSIVE: Former Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold chats to Sport24

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USA head coach Gary Gold. (Photo by Donall Farmer/PA Images via Getty Images)
USA head coach Gary Gold. (Photo by Donall Farmer/PA Images via Getty Images)
  • Ex-Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold talks about why the recently concluded British & Irish Lions series should stand the Springboks in good stead during the Rugby Championship.
  • The former Western Province coach also shares what it was like working with Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus and why Sir Clive Woodward should be the one to “butt out.”
  • The current US Eagles head coach, who came up against Argentina at the 2019 World Cup, runs the rule over Los Pumas and unpacks why they pose a threat to the Boks on Saturday.

Sport24 asked: What was your assessment of the British & Irish Lions series?

Gary Gold: I’m not quite sure people understand how physically-demanding the three-Test series played in Cape Town really was. It ended up being very attritional, direct and forward-based with neither team necessarily moving the ball much into the wider channels. The Springboks have been labelled for playing ‘boring’ rugby in some quarters, but at Test level you have to find a way to win rugby games. Jacques Nienaber’s men were never going to chuck the ball around and disrespect the Lions. The men in green and gold played to their strengths and according to the conditions. I thought the pitch at Cape Town Stadium was atrocious and, for me, playing on a surface like that was one the lowlights of the series. As a football pitch, ostensibly built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, scrummaging and mauling was difficult. We saw the surface cutting up quite badly and many of the outside backs slipping. Nonetheless, South Africa adapted to the variables. Jacques and Rassie Erasmsus are pass masters of understanding their market. They are smart in terms of playing the elements and reading the situation. The Boks were more consistent and deservedly won the series.

Sport24 asked: In contrast, was Warren Gatland caught between game plans?

Gary Gold: Yes, the British & Irish Lions were very inconsistent in terms of what they did. They never picked a team that could adopt a ball-in-hand approach and were caught between playing styles. Gatland is a very good coach, but poor selector.  When picking players, as a coach you have to start in terms of how you want to play. It was the worst case scenario for Gatland because, to offer an analogy, it was like being half-pregnant. He didn’t have an idea of how he wanted to play and the players he wanted. He chopped and changed, had three different centre pairings across the Test series and didn’t understand what he was trying to get out of his game plan. The whole dynamics of the tour were fascinating. If Gatland had gone in with one game plan and a thread of consistency ran through the spine of his team, the visitors may have toppled the world champions in their backyard.

Sport24 asked: Is the aerial contest blighting the oval game as a spectacle?

Gary Gold: As coaches there are certain strategies you need to follow in order to win rugby games. It’s easy to say it’s just an aerial contest, but it’s actually a brutal fight for territory. It’s about trying to get yourself into a better position on the field and, once you have gained that territorial advantage, whether it’s by moving the ball into the outside channel or choosing to kick first – you can then strike. The first thing the Boks have ticked off is become a team that hardly concedes any tries. Moreover, the Boks have a strong set-piece and play in the right areas of the field. Once they are the best in the world at that and can suffocate their opponents, the Boks will then make decisions about when they move the ball. Where does it say in the handbook how you must score tries? So what if the Springbok tries predominantly emanate from turn-overs rather than multi-phase play? I feel there is another component to their play which will soon be unleashed… When preparing for the Springboks their opponents are putting their effort into gaining parity at scrums, managing the kicking game and stopping their drives when they get into the 22. But what happens when you put all your time and energy into stopping the Springboks’ drives and out of the blue they don’t drive against you in that area? Tactically, I foresee the Boks employing a classic. Jasper Wiese will on the blind wing and Damian de Allende will also be coming hard at opponents in that vacuum.

Sport24 asked: What was it like working with Jacques and Rassie at WP?

Gary Gold: I coached with Jacques and Rassie during my tenure with Western Province. I was head coach of the Currie Cup team, Rassie came down as director of rugby and took charge of the Stormers. I was the forwards coach, Jacques took care of the defence and Allister Coetzee did the backs. It was an amazing dynamic and probably the best couple of years of my life in terms of rugby intellect... I saw that Sir Clive Woodward said Rassie shouldn’t be so involved at Springbok level, but maybe he should rather butt out and keep his opinions to himself. When they got appointed, it was Rassie and Jacques and how they have decided to do this strategically is up to them. In terms of Jacques, who took over as Springbok head coach post-World Cup 2019, I think he has done well to develop into the role. He is a real rugby intellectual, has the undeniable respect of the players and I like the fact that he’s understated and is behind the scenes in many ways. He doesn’t want to be in the limelight and gets on and does the job. Jacques is one of the hardest working people I have ever met. People don’t have any idea how many hours he sits in front of a computer - it’s truly next level.

Sport24 asked: As a coach, advice you would give to your younger self?

Gary Gold: I would tell my younger self: Surround yourself with people that are going to challenge you and don’t be afraid to put yourself in that position. The key is to challenge yourself and work with people who are better than you. In other words, people who possess a skill-set that you don’t have. I have worked with Nick Mallett who was far more experienced and Rassie who was a better coach than me. I’m not putting myself down, but everyone has a certain skill-set. I think Brendan Venter and I pioneered a type of defence in 2001/2 with London Irish that teams like Wasps and Wales went on to adopt years later. However, I can hold my hand up and say that right now I can’t hold a flame to Jacques when it comes to defence because that facet of the game ended up becoming his life for 10 years. He has become a professor in said area and has earned his PHD. Good coaches allow themselves to be challenged and aren’t insecure… Rugby can also be about politics and I see people jockeying for positions when it comes to coaching. I’m thankful, at the age of 54, I’ve reached a stage in my life where I don’t really have to worry about that stuff anymore. I don’t lie awake worrying about my job and have the confidence of the people I work for and in what we’re doing. (Gold has held the position of United States Eagles head coach since being selected in 2017).

Sport24 asked: Are Los Pumas a potential banana skin on Saturday?

Gary Gold: The turnaround Mario Ledesma has made with this team is absolutely incredible. The Pumas boast strength in depth, possess a pack that can match the Springboks and they also have outstanding backs. There are a few players in their team who you can put on that world-class pedestal – the likes of Nicolas Sanchez and Pablo Matera. The Springboks have made 10 changes to their starting line-up and the men in green and gold are blessed to have a broad base of players from which to pick. It is an ideal situation ahead of the Rugby Championship because they have trained and done the preparation. However, the Pumas are a proper rugby team. To my mind, the biggest problem the Springboks are going to have this weekend is getting the guys up after a big series win.

Sport24 asked: Are the All Blacks still the Springboks’ ultimate rival?

Gary Gold: The All Blacks obviously boast ridiculously talented individuals, but I think they will be in for a shock when they meet the Springboks during the 2021 Rugby Championship. The Boks are properly battle-hardened now and I want to see what New Zealand rugby is like having not played South African opposition for two years. South Africa’s domestic game has been putrid, but the Lions series coupled with many of their players competing in Europe has raised their overall game. I reckon the Springboks have enough in their arsenal to start beating the All Blacks more consistently. And if their back-to-back Rugby Championship Tests are played on neutral ground – owing to New Zealand’s Covid-19 restrictions – it will be even better for the Boks who’re defending their 2019 title.

Previous chats:

Alan Quinlan

Joe Pietersen

Deon Carstens

Paul Wallace

BJ Botha

Bruce Fordyce

Eddie Andrews

Raymond Rhule

Robert Hunt

Dean Hall

Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg

Jasper Wiese

William Small-Smith

Matthew Booth

Boebie Solomons

Chris van Zyl

Wim Visser

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