Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Sunwolves and Japan assistant coach TONY BROWN talks about the challenges facing his team, assesses South Africa’s Rugby World Cup chances and runs the rule over the Boks’ flyhalf options.
Sport24 asked: Since joining the Sunwolves how have you found the overall experience?
Tony Brown: Coaching the Sunwolves has been pretty good so far and has been a different challenge. When I left the Highlanders last year after four seasons with the side, I joined Jamie Joseph as assistant coach of Japan. Originally, we weren’t meant to take over the Sunwolves, but we decided to assume dual roles in order to get the best out of the Japanese players. The aim is to build our game and improve our players during the Super Rugby season. Only time will tell whether taking on both roles is going to work or not. However, Jamie and I complement each other as coaches and work really well together as a team. The most difficult challenge for the Sunwolves is that we get hardly any preparation time - you just don’t have the same time to prepare a side in Japan like you do in New Zealand. It’s just going to take a bit more time for Japan to sort out its structures, so that the Sunwolves can prove competitive. Some people say that the Sunwolves don’t deserve to play in Super Rugby and I one hundred percent think that that is an unfair comment. Every side is trying to win games of rugby each week and the fact of the matter is that not all the teams can. If you weigh up all the difficulties the Sunwolves have compared to the other Super Rugby franchises, we are always disadvantaged but still turn in committed performances. (The bottom-placed Sunwolves came close to pulling of a shock upset over the Lions at Ellis Park last Saturday). We now have four matches under our belt and I think you’ll see a stronger showing from the side this term. If we can keep our players fit and on the field, we are set to witness pretty good performances from the team.
Sport24 asked: Post-Rugby World Cup 2019 do you see yourself returning to New Zealand?
Tony Brown: After 2019, and once the curtain has come down on the Rugby World Cup in Japan, I’m definitely keen to return to New Zealand and get back into coaching in my home country. I don’t know if I have got unfinished business at the Highlanders, but I love coaching that team and would love to do so again at some stage. However, they have got a coaching team in place at the moment and they are going pretty well this season. (The Highlanders are currently the New Zealand conference leaders). Once I complete my coaching tenure with Japan and the Sunwolves, I will just have to wait and see what happens and which opportunities come up. While I’m a solid all-round coach, my aspiration is to become the best attack coach in the world. I love the attacking side of the game and it’s about how to innovate and push the barriers. The key is to try and stay ahead of everyone else around offence. New Zealand coaches have a good rap and rightly so. I don’t think South African rugby should stick exclusively to South African coaches because there are so many different ways to play the game. By looking at other options, like John Mitchell at the Bulls and Paul Feeney at the Stormers, who’ve sharpened their respective teams' attack, it can only improve South African rugby.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the strength of South Africa’s Super Rugby teams?
Tony Brown: The Lions have had two or three successful years and they are looking pretty strong again this season. I guess it’s up to the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls to really challenge the Lions for that spot in the play-offs. The Sharks looked pretty good against us two weeks ago in Durban (The Sharks recorded a 50-22 victory) and I think the Stormers will be pretty formidable now that they are back home and playing at Newlands. In terms of what they have done over the last couple of years, the Lions would naturally be deemed the strongest South African side. From my experience, South African rugby has always been pretty competitive and if the Stormers, Sharks and even the Bulls get their games right quickly, they can put the Lions under some real pressure. In terms of turning out for South African teams in Super Rugby, I had an awesome time living and playing in Durban and Cape Town (Brown played for the Sharks in 2006 and the Stormers in 2008). I loved every minute of my time with both teams. I met some really good people and was coached by some quality coaches.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of South Africa’s playing depth in the No 10 position?
Tony Brown: South Africa has a number of interesting options at flyhalf. It’s good to see Handre Pollard back playing after a couple of horrendous injuries. I always thought that he was going to be a bit of a superstar, but he hasn’t come on over the last couple of years because of injuries. It will be interesting to see what he can do this year. Elton Jantjies is a quality rugby player and surprisingly hasn’t performed at Test level to the expectations of everyone. I’m not sure why because I definitely think he is good enough. Potentially it could be because the way that the Springboks play doesn’t suit his game. I know that at Super Rugby level he is as good as anyone. With Rassie Erasmus now at the helm, he will get the South African game going and that could aide Elton. Meanwhile, Robert du Preez is a quality rugby player. I was really impressed with Robert last year when he was at the Stormers. I thought he had a really good season and was probably unlucky not to have made the Springbok squad. I rate South Africa’s strength in depth at pivot, but Beauden Barrett is the best in the world because he has got all the skills and can play 15 as well as 10. He’s a threat right across the park and is a very dangerous player. In the modern game, a flyhalf cannot just be a catch-and-pass or kicking player. Defensively, they also have to be really effective when someone comes down the flyhalf channel and, when dropping back to fill in at fullback, they need to be really effective aerially.
Sport24 asked: You played under Rassie Erasmus. What do you make of his appointment?
Tony Brown: I was coached by Rassie during my time at the Stormers. He is obviously a quality coach and I loved playing for and being coached by him. I believe his appointment as Springbok coach and dual role as director of rugby can only be a positive for South African rugby. He is really innovate around the game and understands rugby really well. Furthermore, he knows how to win games of rugby and his people-management skills are fantastic. I also had former Springbok coach Allister Coetzee coaching me at the Stormers at the same time. Coaching is a pretty cut-throat game, especially at the highest level. The Springboks are a proud rugby nation and if you are not achieving the desired results, the reality is that a coaching change will be in the offing. Maybe a change of coach will give the Springboks what they need with the 2019 Rugby World Cup on the horizon. I think South Africa can still turn it around in time for the World Cup. South Africa’s strength is World Cups - they have won the trophy twice - and at the 2015 Rugby World Cup they were a couple of high balls away from beating the All Blacks. Like all the top nations in the world, the Springboks peak for World Cups and I think South Africa is one of the nations that are going to be a strong contender.
Sport24 asked: Who is your money on to prevail at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan?
Tony Brown: If you are a betting man you would definitely put your money on the All Blacks. They always have to be right up there as favourites to win the competition and will be once again in Japan because they have won back-to-back World Cup tournaments. However, I think anything is possible at a World Cup. I’ve already mentioned South Africa as a strong contender for the Webb Ellis Cup and Ireland, who won the Six Nations and secured the Grand Slam, are looking really good at the moment. And even though England have lost their last three matches and Australia is ranked fourth, they pose a real threat as well. In terms of the Japanese national team, I think we have assembled a pretty competitive team. We drew with France last year in Paris and not many teams go to France and come away with points. The year before, we were tied with Wales only for them to slot a last minute drop-goal and win the game. I firmly believe that we can beat any team in the world on our day if we get our game right. Our challenge as coaches is to get the players peaking during those World Cup matches. Coaching Japan with Jamie, especially at a home World Cup, is going to be a huge challenge and honour. We will try to win as many matches as we can. All the players are really pushing in an effort to make the national side and there is healthy competition between the players in the race for selection. That can only be a positive for Japanese rugby going forward. There is already a sense of anticipation in the country and the one thing the Japanese do is run a great event.
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