Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Would it really be so
sacrilegious for the South African Rugby Union to at least strongly consider
for once the possibility of engaging someone from abroad to take the national
team back to the loftiest level?
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Let me make this clear: I am not saying the
Springboks are actually crying out for “foreign intervention”, if you like.
If the latest reported smoke signals from
SARU’s headquarters are to be believed, three South Africans are once again
favoured anyway to grab the reins from Peter de Villiers -- in the form of
Rassie Erasmus, Allister Coetzee and the current Irish forwards coach Gert
I have no instant aversion to any of this
trio; certainly fewer reservations than I harboured when De Villiers succeeded
The “Div” era has often been more
successful, it must be said, than the periods at the helm of others in the
post-isolation era like Rudolf Straeuli, Harry Viljoen, Carel du Plessis and
John Williams, although time-specific circumstance and fortune can be both
redeeming and aggravating factors.
But I’m already inclined to venture that
all of Erasmus, Coetzee and Smal offer crucially more in the rugby
tactical/philosophical department than the quirky fellow standing down,
whatever his strengths may have been in the areas of team harmony and staunch
leeway he gave to his most senior campaigners who, ultimately, could not be
held especially responsible for the unlucky RWC 2011 quarter-final exit.
Nevertheless, we live in a period where
there’s clearly something in the New Zealand water ensuring that that proud
rugby union country is spouting coaches of rare calibre and, just as
importantly, success rates.
As parochial boundaries are increasingly
broken down with fast-paced advances in communication, technology and travel,
major sports teams the world over are being coached or managed -- without the
blink of a protesting eyelid -- by people from abroad, many of whom deftly
absorb “home” characteristics pretty quickly whilst also bringing invaluable
attributes from their countries of origin.
Into the semi-final mix at the ongoing World
Cup have gone no fewer than three teams with Kiwis coaching them: Robbie Deans
(Australia), Graham Henry of host nation New Zealand and Warren Gatland of
those impressive, surprise packages Wales, having reached this phase for only
the second time since the inaugural tournament of 1987.
Meanwhile in South Africa are currently
engaged two further astute New Zealanders in John Mitchell and John Plumtree,
respectively eyeing this year’s Currie Cup with the Lions and Sharks, and
products of the same town of Hawera in Taranaki – a largely irrelevant but
still interesting little fact given that it is a small place with a population
of not much more than 10 000.
The latter has been part of the South
African landscape for the proverbial donkey’s years, his CV including two
Currie Cup-winning medals as a Natal player and then just as many (2008 and
2010) as Sharks coach.
His charges can be a funny old team, I
admit: imperious and slick for some weeks, they are also known to drift into a
weird malaise of sterile rugby during other periods. By and large, though, they
tend to be right up among the contenders in both major seasonal competitions
and Plumtree can genuinely be said to have “been there and done that”.
Of late, Mitchell’s success in leading the
Lions to emphatic, top-placed finish after the round-robin season of this
year’s Currie Cup has made observers sit up and take notice.
Say what you like about the absence of a
lorry-load of Springboks from the domestic competition in a World Cup year:
Mitchell still plies his trade with a largely workmanlike group of players,
rather than an especially striking bunch of superstars, and has clearly
squeezed that essential “bit extra” out of them.
He has shown commendable loyalty to his
Highveld post, not least because he experienced a vicious criminal attack in
his apartment last year in which he was stabbed twice; many other expats might
have been inclined, with valid reason, to quickly return to from whence they
They often say an understanding of South
Africa’s “special heritage” is essential if you are going to be Bok coach or
even occupy that position with a local franchise: a prior New Zealander in
Laurie Mains earned notable success with both the Lions (Currie Cup) and once
laughing-stock Cats (Super Rugby semi-finalists twice) but fell rather foul of
the transformation lobby.
Mains did often give the impression of
having a tunnel-vision, defiant approach to the delicate matter, although
subsequently this has not been a flashpoint of great magnitude for either
Plumtree or Mitchell.
Besides, Government has been notably warmer of
late toward the Springbok cause, with a strengthening lobby even between the
walls of Parliament agreeing that meaningful grassroots development is a
stronger priority than “forcing” bigger black representation in the SA team.
Let me repeat: I am not furiously
clamouring for Plumtree or Mitchell to take the Bok reins, but if either
happened to throw his cap into the ring, I would be reasonably excited about
the likelihood that they might just provide some necessary “new element” to the
We do seem to have a bit of a reflex, cultural
aversion to someone from overseas coaching South Africa. Are we missing a wee
trick as a result?
I’m curious to hear Sport24 readers’ thoughts