EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Springbok attack coach Swys de Bruin chats to Sport24

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Swys de Bruin (Gallo Images)
Swys de Bruin (Gallo Images)
Gordon Arons
  • The former Springbok attack coach talks about the reasons behind his exit from the management team in 2018 and what he’s made of Jacques Nienaber’s coaching evolution.
  • The ex-Lions assistant, who helped guide the team to the 2017 Super Rugby final, shares his views on refereeing standards and how Mark Lawrence often had to calm him down.
  • The current SuperSport analyst also explains why he would be against a foreign consultant joining the Springbok management team and which overseas players have caught his eye.

Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your time with the Springboks?

Swys de Bruin: I’m just so honoured and blessed to have been with the Springboks for 16 Tests. It was an amazing time and I learned a lot. My decision to step away from my role (as attack coach) in 2018 was two-fold. On the one hand, it was from a stress-related point of view and on the other it was in terms of a different outlook as far as game philosophy was concerned. The Springboks were absolutely fantastic in winning the 2019 World Cup and I have praised them for it but my philosophy of thinking all my life has been a bit different. As a coach, I have always had a run, pass and then kick philosophy but my order is not the same as theirs. Looking back after four years, leaving the Springbok coaching set-up was the right thing to do and I’m not for one second sorry that I did it. I felt in a big way I’d done most of my work I had wanted to do there. It was not only a selfish decision because for the team it was a good thing as well. For me to hang around there and just want to attack, attack, attack when it was not really the philosophy, wouldn’t have served the group. So for me, the team and Rassie (Erasmus) I feel it was the right thing to do. I don’t want to harp too much on the stress/burn-out thing, thank God I’m now 100% healthy and am loving what I’m doing as Shimlas Director of Coaching, coaching coaches at Pecanwood and my job as a SuperSport analyst.

Sport24 asked: Were you tempted to join Johan Ackermann in Japan?

Swys de Bruin: Akkers is a fantastic oke and he said to me, “Come on, let’s go to Japan.” I replied, “No, I can’t see myself there.” I had just come through a tough time in my life and didn’t want to leave home. And then in the same breath he asked if I can’t go could he take my son Neil? I quipped, “You wanted Neil in the first place but you just asked me out of respect.” Akkers just laughed and said, “No, that’s not the case.” In my 35 years of coaching, the time spent with him at the Lions was the most blessed and glorious. We never won the cup, which was bad in a way, but for us those six years were about more than just rugby. We developed a special bond with the players. I have always believed that if you’re tight off the field, when the pressure is on you will stick together on the field.

Sport24 asked: Your take on Jacques Nienaber’s evolution as coach?

Swys de Bruin: Jacques must be the best defence coach in the world but he has also stepped up very well into the head coach role. Jacques has a different personality and is a typical left-brain kind of thinker. He’s very thorough in terms of what he does and will work a lot on what stats tell him. He backs his system and what he believes in defence, second to none. Jacques is very good and Rassie wouldn’t have given him that job if he didn’t believe he was really the best. In terms of the team culture which has been created, I have heard that Jacques told Siya that he doesn’t want him to call him Coach Jacques otherwise he will call him Player Siya. Names aren’t important but what’s vital is that there’s absolute mutual respect. There have been some suggestions in the media that the Boks would be well-served adding a consultant to their coaching set-up to freshen up ahead of the World Cup. In a SARugby poll, Scott Robertson topped the vote. However, if I can be honest with you I wouldn’t even consider that route. Robertson is doing very well and is sitting there with the cream of the crop. He is doing nicely in a very settled franchise but I wouldn’t look for any foreigners in our situation at this stage. Foreign coaches bring fresh ideas at the right places but what the Boks are doing now is very good. Rassie will know how to handle that and who to bring in and who not to as he is a master of that. I can tell you one thing for nothing, Rassie is a rugby genius. He has a feel before stuff happens and to me that is a true mark of a real visionary. He has foresight in the game.

Sport24 asked: Having served his ban, will Erasmus be more cautious?

Swys de Bruin: With old Rassie anything can happen and you never know. He is our Director of Rugby and we’ve got to back him now. Thankfully, I see that the majority do. We must now forget what happened (in terms of Videogate) and move forward. As a Super Rugby coach, I used to send video clips but there were times when I didn’t want to send them as it felt like they didn’t even look at the bloody stuff. As a coach you get emotionally involved and when I used to phone SARU Referee Performance Manager Mark Lawrence, he used to have to calm me down! As coaches, we think with our heart because rugby is a game from the heart. I vividly remember the 2017 Super Rugby final down in Christchurch where I lost it and was past furious. It felt like it was me and my team against the referee and the world. A number of referees are very good and do it well such as Jaco Peyper but, by and large, the refereeing inconsistencies will never change. In rugby, there are so many things that can go wrong in a given situation. You want to get the referees on your side because they have memories like elephants. As Doc Craven said, “No one, including the referees, is bigger than the game.” There has to be transparency and if we’ve got problems, we’ve got to handle them. It must never become a scenario where it becomes them against us because then it will get ugly. In order to improve the system going forward, we need sound communication and clarity on decision-making.

Sport24 asked: Have the Boks become over-reliant on their kicking game?

Swys de Bruin: I must say in the last couple of Tests I found that the Springboks discovered a better blend between kicking and running. However, if I was still part of the Bok management team I would encourage them to attack and run much more than they are currently doing. For me, it isn’t a case of not kicking but rather how you kick. I believe you’ve got to kick for two reasons: to get the ball back and to apply heavy pressure. I don’t always enjoy when the Boks make it a 50/50 contest and don’t play (with ball-in-hand) in their half. Having said that, playing off number nine more than 10 is part of our DNA and with the team profile we have that is 100%. The Boks have number nines who can give a good box kick, wings who are sound under the high ball and very strong forwards. The Springboks play off nine because it’s a lower-risk game and is closer to the rucks. With the way the Boks play, I don’t think they will need to add an attack consultant ahead of the 2023 World Cup in France. They don’t focus on that area but instead turnover and counter-attack. I must say I worked a lot on counter-attack during my time there – it was one of my main focus points – and it was very pleasing for me to see that when the pressure was up, they counter-attacked well. There is a system they follow, which we started in 2018, and it revolves around how to get your loose forwards and hookers in the trams. If you get the turn-over, it can be a very dangerous weapon if you train that.

Sport24 asked: Your view on who should win SA Rugby Player of the Year?

Swys de Bruin: I don’t think it’s fair to single out players and I back the five players who’ve been nominated. However, if I must pick one of those for the readers, I would lean towards Eben Etzebeth. Awards are good for the individual but it’s not always good for the team because the team often gets the individual there... The 2023 World Cup is around the corner and Jacques and his management team will be very thorough in terms of the pecking order, playing minutes, injuries and who the rookies are who have put their hands up. They are very good with their planning and, as I was there with them for a while, I know that there won’t be one stone unturned as they approach the showpiece. The likes of Andre Esterhuizen and Tyrone Green have made a statement overseas. Green has been playing well and I’ve keenly watched a few of Esterhuizen’s clips. I love Damian de Allende but Esterhuizen would be on par with him. They are two very good inside centres. Heading towards the World Cup, I’d like to see the Boks picking the right combinations. With the management team in place and players around, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. While there will be subtle changes and tweaks, the Boks will stick to the percentages. Jacques believes defence wins World Cups and he was proved right at the 2019 event so the Boks won’t change their strategy.

Sport24 asked: Who would you like to sit down with in the world of sport?

Swys de Bruin: I would like to speak to Novak Djokovic and get all the facts from his side. It would be nice to listen to what he would say now. It’s always very interesting if you’ve got the guts to stand up for something no matter the cost. I sensed it in a small way when I left the Springboks on the flight back from Wellington. I thought to myself I would be finished with rugby and go back into teaching. I was prepared to walk away because it was the right thing for me at that stage but you always wonder about the consequences. I’m a man of faith and not a realist. My son’s words to me were: “Dad, if you turn your back and walk away you’ve got to be man enough to suffer the consequences.” It’s true you can only turn your back on stuff if you are prepared to face the music.

Previous interviews:

Brett Schultz

Percy Montgomery

Alan Solomons

Josh Strauss

Mouritz Botha

David Denton

Warren Brosnihan

Dale Benkenstein

Stephen Mokoka

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