Who would want to be a Springbok coach?

2013-08-31 08:31

A week before his team takes on its most formidable challenge – consecutive away games against Australia and New Zealand – five members of Heyneke Meyer’s squad disappear to France for the weekend. That means no rest period; an additional punishing long-haul flight and four days subtracted from an already very tight preparation schedule. On top of all that, Meyer must live with the fear that he might lose them altogether through injury. This, after he had already had to take into the account the ravages wrought by the extended Super Rugby campaign.

Springbok coaches have always had to deal with the fact that their needs come second to those of the provincial unions. Meyer has an additional burden: he also has to give way to European and Japanese clubs’ prior claims on his players. Yet the pressure on him to keep winning – from the country, not to mention the demands of his performance contract – remains unabated.

Watching the change in Meyer over the past year and a half since his appointment – from a passionate, optimistic man brimming with plans for leading his team to the top – to the harried, tense individual he is now reminds me of a late night encounter in New Zealand with his predecessor, Peter de Villiers, during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It was shortly before the last pool game and the Boks were doing well – still on course for the ultimate feat of being the first team ever to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. But De Villiers knew by then that, whatever happened, he was history. All he was asking for, he said, was another year so that he could pass on the institutional knowledge he had gained over the past four years to the new encumbent. The new coach would make the decisions but De Villiers could ensure that the man was as well equipped as possible with lessons learnt from the past four years. Whether or not this would have worked, the principle was a sound one. But it had already been made clear to him that that was not going to happen. And he was an angry man.

In the end he was kept on for an additional month while SARU dithered over his successor, before being consigned to the obscurity he had feared. No matter what the weaknesses of De Villiers’ reign were, he must have gained invaluable experience as leader of a globally competitive team. Surely this could have been put to better use than as coach of a Varsity Shield team?

De Villiers’ difficulties are not new. The autobiographies of White and Mallett’s team manager, Rob van der Valk, all record the same endless grinding battles with their bosses. The issues over the past decade have remained much the same, which surely indicates a problem with the system, rather than the coaches.

In direct contrast to the union presidents who appoint them, Springbok coaches are held very publicly accountable for their performance even though they have less and less control over their players. They are viewed as expendable. Someone has to carry the can for poor decision-making at the top.

Jake White was the first Bok coach to last the full four years between Rugby World Cups but he now uses his South African-gained experience to boost an opposition team in the Brumbies. Nick Mallett had the highest winning percentage of any coach – 71%. No coach has matched that before or since - apart from Kitch Christie who had a 100% win record but only presided over 12 Tests. Nevertheless, Mallett was drummed out early on the pretext that he had breached his contract by publicly criticizing SARU. Mallett’s defence - that the woman to whom he had complained about the excessive cost of Test tickets had not identified herself as a journalist – was summarily dismissed. So, despite his win record, Mallett was then lost to Italy and France for a decade before returning to South Africa as SuperSport commentator. Again, we are being profligate with our resources.

Judging by the past, whether or not Meyer succeeds in bringing home the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015, he too will be discarded once his four years are over. And once again a new coach with a new team will reinvent the wheel. Not even the assistant coaches survive.

We need to do better than this. Look at the current world champions, for instance, who manage their much scarcer resources more astutely.

The New Zealand Rugby Union contracts its players centrally so that they can be managed primarily for the benefit of the national team.

They also go for continuity in their coaching staff so that they can keep building on what has been learnt rather than throwing it away, as we do.

Graham Henry had been head coach of the All Blacks for eight years when he led them to victory in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He was succeeded by one of his assistant coaches, Steve Hansen, who had by then learnt everything Henry had to teach him. This is what builds excellence, in the team on the field and the one off it.

**This column by Liz McGregor first appeared in the Business Day

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