Cape Town – Gary Gold assuming an English Premiership directorship role this week serves as a further reminder that too much rugby coaching know-how leaves South African shores, to accompany the consistent player drain.
The country’s increasingly difficult quest to remain a true global superpower is hardly helped by the expanding tally of experienced coaches who are either plying their trades abroad or – no less damningly, when you think about it -- simply don’t desire occupying major positions within the domestic first-class landscape.
Into that category fall street-wise men like Jake White, a World Cup winner as Springbok coach, Nick Mallett and Peter de Villiers (both Tri-Nations winners), Heyneke Meyer, who I unapologetically maintain was an immensely better national coach than some will give him credit for, Rassie Erasmus, Alan Solomons, Brendan Venter and now also Gold.
Also no longer wearing the tracksuit or engaged in analysis and structural issues here are men like Frans Ludeke, a past Super Rugby-winning mastermind, and Jimmy Stonehouse, who once helped the Pumas punch cheekily above their weight when the Currie Cup was a tad stronger than it is now.
Almost all have had their ups and downs in various hot seats, whether international or franchise; that comes with the turf, and it is character-building.
But they have also proved their mettle to such an extent, in most cases, that Super Rugby directorship or head-coach mantles within our borders would – or could – be safely and gratifyingly placed in their hands.
Instead, too many of the men who will engineer the six-pronged SA challenge in Super Rugby 2017 are still cutting their teeth at that level – only the Lions’ Johan Ackermann of the six has sampled a final as coach – so anything but proven customers in it despite rosy potential in some instances.
A bit like the effect of too many playing-level hardebaarde being absent from SA teams these days is so obviously felt, the same applies to the widening domestic void in intellectual acumen around the game.
It should be crucially remembered that even Eddie Jones, who virtually walks on water in popularity terms as England’s head coach at present, has had his campaign or two of “video nasties”.
Already very seasoned and often celebrated by then, Jones suffered the indignity, for instance, of seeing his Queensland Reds charges of 2007 end rock bottom of the then-Super 14 table.
But that also – so clearly, subsequently -- didn’t make him a rugby fool overnight.
The same holds true, I would argue, for someone like Gold, even if I am not trying to engineer any kind of direct comparison.
He has had his rollercoaster rides in rugby worldwide, with the rest of them, yet people in South Africa are perhaps too quick to crassly judge failure rather than acknowledge achievements, whether quiet or more obviously evident on paper.
Gold was an assistant Bok coach, remember, during a wonderful little period in which the All Blacks were beaten three times in a year by them in 2009 – could you see that kind of thing happening again, any time soon? – as well as helping to oversee the prestigious series downing of the British and Irish Lions.
He has had prior English spells of varying success at London Irish, Newcastle and Bath, but the Premiership is an increasingly professional, smartly-administered place these days, and the rugby grapevine over there must have assured labouring Worcester Warriors (presently 11th of the 12 teams on the table) that if they tasked him with rescuing their season, they certainly wouldn’t be taking on a turkey.
I would also argue that -- ironically towards the finish of his two years in Durban -- the Sharks were showing definite signs of rejuvenation in Super Rugby, even if not necessarily reflected in log position (they were eighth overall, though that was enough to earn them a knockout berth, something not achieved the previous year).
Remember that in 2015, he first had to repair some element of damage caused in the short tenure of Jake White, who got good results in 2014 but whose headmasterly style reportedly caused some dressing-room ructions.
Gold is strong on fostering a “team culture” and putting growth structures in place -- phenomena that don’t simply occur with the click of the fingers; it requires time and patience – and the Sharks only sneaking into the quarter-finals last year has to be placed in the context of their tournament draw, which was almost too ghoulish on paper to even be reflected suitably in a vampire comic.
Along the way, confirmation of renewed zest and longer-term potential came when, not much more than two months before the Hurricanes earned their maiden title, the Sharks produced one of the performances of the season by anyone to thrash the New Zealanders 32-15 with a bonus point for good measure at Kings Park.
History is littered with cases of SA teams making an extra, fatiguing trek across the Indian Ocean for a knockout fixture at the fag end of the long campaign and ending up smashed in pieces on the rocks – the Sharks fluffed early opportunities for points (never a good development for the rank underdog) against the ‘Canes in their Cake Tin on an unusually tempestuous day weather-wise and were duly trounced 41-0.
Gold wears his heart on his sleeve and I can tell you for free that he was as mortified as anyone wearing a Sharks badge over that shambolic display and outcome; we had what you might call some “frank”, long-distance exchanges of views – disagreements very quickly, amicably settled -- by private means on Twitter after I had lambasted the team’s capitulation in Wellington.
He had been understandably emotional in the immediate aftermath and his disappointment was deep-rooted: that game put an unjustly distorted sort of end to their 2016 presence in the competition, before he later parted company by mutual consent as key administrative posts also changed hands at Kings Park.
Don’t discount the possibility that, if emerging successor Robert du Preez makes decent strides with the team this year – aided by a hugely more favourable 2017 fixture list – at least some part of that may be the residual effect of Gold’s facilitative work in Durban.
In bigger-picture terms, his CV serves clear notice that he should be gainfully employed in South Africa, along with several other gentlemen whose names have been listed above, to the benefit of the game here, and it is extremely regrettable that they are not.
The situation, you have to believe, is pretty strongly influenced not only by the inevitable, annual upheaval among the playing staffs of franchises and provinces as individuals take up attractive contracts with foreign clubs – how do you build real continuity? – but also the increasingly damaging publicity and public scorn SARU earns over decisions, or perceived inertia on certain matters, at “HQ”.
Some consolation is that Gold told Sport24 on Thursday he only intended this as a short-term stint abroad.
“The remit is two-fold … to help Worcester stay up and put systems in place for sustainability going forward.
“I would love to work (upon return) in South African rugby in some capacity but senior management.”
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing