Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok lock ALISTAIR HARGREAVES talks about Glen Jackson’s evolution as a referee, managing Curwin Bosch’s career and previews the Test in Perth on Saturday...
Sport24 asked: Could PRO14 spell the end for South Africa’s Super Rugby participation?
Alistair Hargreaves: The new-look PRO14 competition is a fantastic concept and one that we are all watching very closely to see if that is going to be the future route for other South African teams. Edward Griffiths started championing the cause for South Africa to play North-South instead of East-West rugby when he was still Saracens CEO, and I think he’s absolutely correct. The game has grown in the north and the quality of rugby is outstanding. It’s exciting that the Cheetahs and Kings have joined the PRO14 competition. As we have already seen from the first round of fixtures, it will be a very challenging introduction for the South African teams, but it’s a fresh initiative and signals the start of a new adventure for rugby in South Africa. For many years, Super Rugby was known both far and wide as the best tournament on earth, but the format is now a joke in itself. The reality is that the Super Rugby executives got greedy and always wanted more without thinking about what was best for the players and the game as whole. The men in suits are starting to realise their mistakes - by reducing the number of Super Rugby teams from 2018 - but what has happened to the Western Force is an absolute tragedy. Their players were sold a dream and then suddenly the wheels fell off. I believe the current state Super Rugby finds itself in comes down to very poor leadership from the top. When the SANZAAR TV deal expires in 2020, I would be very surprised if a few of the bigger unions in South Africa don’t put their hands up to have a dip in the northern hemisphere. The reality is there are too many local derbies in Super Rugby and the competition has become watered down.
Sport24 asked: What is your assessment of the Springboks’ rise from the ashes?
Alistair Hargreaves: The Springbok turnaround has been fantastic. We always want to be positive about South African rugby and it’s great to have reason to do so. However, it’s important to manage expectations because it’s going to prove a tricky antipodean tour, with consecutive Tests against the Wallabies and All Blacks. Suddenly, after a few decent performances, we may think that we have enough to beat the All Blacks. However, I don’t feel we should judge the Springboks according to a mark in the win or loss column. We should instead be looking at our ability to challenge them and should be aiming to grow our game. The key is to measure our performances rather than our results. I would be very disappointed if the Springboks came back from New Zealand and the whole mood of optimism had changed because they were second best on the scoreboard. Let us judge the Boks on their commitment, how they play and see how they grow tactically as a unit. The Boks have found a good balance in their game and now appear to know when to attack. Everyone always speaks about running rugby, but as an ex-player something that frustrates me the most is that running rugby is a very difficult thing to get right unless you are doing the basics very well, your set-piece is solid and you play in the right areas of the field. Saracens were derided for years for playing a boring style of rugby and just defending. However, on the opening weekend of the Aviva Premiership not only did Saracens have the best defence in the competition, they scored seven first half tries against one of their biggest rivals. It’s important to not put the cart before the horse. It’s also about trusting your systems and knowing when to play and how to play. The Springboks have clearly approached the game with a bit more of a pragmatic mindset. There are some positive signs from the Springboks, but it’s still going to be a while before we see the best of this team, so let’s practice some patience.
Sport24 asked: How would you rate South Africa’s depth in the lock department?
Alistair Hargreaves: Soon after the Bakkies Botha-Victor Matfield era, some real talent at lock was starting to be unearthed. South Africa now has some really exciting players in the lock department. Eben Etzebeth is a world-class player and Franco Mostert, who will be rested for this weekend’s clash against Australia, has been exceptional this season. He is a fantastic player, who puts his body on the line and it has been great to see him running around with verve and vigour. Pieter-Steph du Toit and Lood de Jager, who come into the reckoning, are equally skilled players. Back in the day, you used to have a tight lock and a loose lock. Botha and Matfield worked brilliantly in tandem. However, in the modern game working as a combination is less important and locks have to be adaptable, flexible and need to fulfil very similar roles. They have to be strong scrummagers, proficient lineout jumpers, and have to mix it up physically in order to excel around the field.
Sport24 asked: In Warren Whiteley’s absence who should be leading the Springboks?
Alistair Hargreaves: I’m always loathe to make judgements on who should lead teams without actually playing in said sides. It’s very easy to sit on the couch and say, “he should be the captain.” However, we aren’t privy to the small conversations, whispers in the ear and how someone manages to pull guys together before and after a match. I’m sure there is a very sound debate around calls for Siya Kolisi to become the next Springbok captain, and he is certainly playing some fantastic rugby. However, Etzebeth has been the man tasked with the responsibility and he has a core group of leaders around him. I have always been a believer that captaincy is a collective endeavour rather than an individual pursuit. When I was fortunate enough to captain Saracens, I had one of my best mates alongside me in Brad Barritt. In the same vein, Etzebeth and Kolisi, who are really tight, are sharing the load. I believe it’s very important that we trust in the decisions made by the Springbok management. Captaincy is about working on your strengths in order to deliver a clear message to your team, being able to motivate people and putting in performances that your team-mates can follow. I played under two fantastic captains in John Smit and Steve Borthwick. They were both very different, but they were equally brilliant at their jobs. It just goes to show that in terms of captaincy it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Leadership is not defined by a certain type of person or position.
Sport24 asked: Were the Boks correct in sending Curwin Bosch back to the Sharks?
Alistair Hargreaves: I have followed some of the media surrounding the decision to leave Bosch out of the touring squad to Australasia, and the debate between him and Handre Pollard. If we want someone like Bosch to play for the Springboks for a decade, we’ve got to make sure that we are doing right by him every single step of the way. The question we must always ask is: Is this in the best interests of the player long-term or is it a short-term decision? I’m personally comfortable with the decision from the Bok management to send him back to Currie Cup duty. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. He has a lot of learning to do and will grow in every single game that he plays. And, if he keeps on putting in performances like he has done, he will surely get his shot. As we saw with Elton Jantjies earlier on in his career, when you chuck a guy onto the field when he might not be quite ready, it can knock him back a few years. Elton has fought hard to get his position back in the Springbok squad and it’s a cue we should take in the management of Bosch. It’s important to ensure that when a younger player enters the Bok environment, he is equipped and experienced enough to hold onto his place because it’s high-risk and cutthroat at the top. Bosch may be disappointed in the short-term, but I firmly believe that blooding him slowly into the national set-up will have massive long-term benefits.
Sport24 asked: Your take ahead of the 84th Test between Australia and South Africa?
Alistair Hargreaves:I see Os du Randt has warned about possible underhand tactics the Wallabies could employ at scrum time during Saturday’s Test. If Australia’s tactics are to come and bend the rules as much as they can, I would be very concerned for them. In this day and age, with many pairs of eyes on the game, microphones and cameras in every single corner of the pitch, it’s very difficult to get away with too much manipulation. However, it’s important for the Springboks to raise the issue before the match so that the officials are aware of it. But if the Boks play the game on the front foot and have the upper-hand at scrum time, there’s very little that the Wallabies can do. I believe referee Glen Jackson will handle the situation well. Glen is resilient and he won’t be overawed by the occasion. He has a pretty good track record, is highly regarded and won’t stand for any skulduggery. It’s difficult to play against the Wallabies because they are inconsistent and have blown hot and cold. Defensively, they haven’t been strong but, like all Australian sides, if the game breaks down and gets loose they have the potential to score tries owing to their great individual playmakers. In terms of Saturday, for me, it’s about the Boks not trying to reinvent the wheel for one Test match. I would like to see them carry on defending resolutely and not chuck the ball around for no reason in the wrong areas of the field. If I was in Perth this week and was asked to hand out the Springbok jerseys, I’d preach pragmatism over anything else, but maybe that’s just the tight forward coming out in me?
Previous Q&A chats:
Neil de Kock
Bakkies BothaRohan Janse van Rensburg