Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - If Super Rugby operated on a similar basis to English Premiership football, Robbie Fleck would have been a forceful candidate of late for some sort of “manager of the month” equivalent accolade.
The Stormers head coach, bundled into the position with necessarily indecent haste after the Eddie Jones fiasco at Newlands last year, looks increasingly assured and dynamic in the early weeks of his second season.
His charges have a 100 percent win record after five matches, lead their conference by an unusually gaping margin, and enter a red-letter date against the also unbeaten Chiefs at Newlands on Saturday on the back of a thrill-a-minute, appealingly futuristic-looking dismantling of the Cheetahs one game before.
Fleck, a “young” coach at 41, seems to be one of relatively few in SA beginning to meaningfully strike the correct balance between brute-force traditional strengths and a much-needed flair for the unexpected in attacking terms.
In the first part of Sport24’s in-depth chat with him earlier this week, the focus is on the former Springbok centre’s personal growth in coaching, and his thinking and ideas in the position, before part two handles more Stormers-specific issues...
Houwing: In your playing days, we used to speak of things like your self-confessed disorganised ways, eternally fun-loving, youthful spirit… and even your failure as a pizza deliveryman when your old car gave up on you. With great respect, you didn’t seem a future candidate for coaching then?
Fleck: (Laughter) You know, Rob, to be honest, as a player I never, ever, foresaw a shift into coaching. I was always interested in the game - it helped being coached by good people who got you understanding rugby better - and Harry Viljoen and Tim Lane made me Bok vice-captain, so I started doing a lot more analytical work behind the scenes. Going overseas to Bath in my (later playing years)... I was a senior player there, automatically, and required to help mentor a new generation of players. Again, it was a taste of some kind of transition toward coaching, I guess. But when I retired at Bath, suddenly through injury, I still didn’t see a future for me in coaching.
Houwing: So what other career path might have followed?
Fleck: Well, I came back from overseas, started working outside rugby. I wanted my weekends back, having time with my family and so on. Bob Skinstad and I had one or two (restaurant/pub) businesses together, and a couple of interests with my family as well. It was valuable getting thrown into the deep end of office-type work, dealing with Excel spreadsheets, running management teams and so on. But I also got an invitation from John Dobson to come and help coach part-time at UCT. Just a bit of fun, no pay or anything. I enjoyed it a lot; created a few drills for the guys, watched their games. I don’t know how long I might have stayed, but because we had such a successful year under John, I got identified by Rassie Erasmus to come here, to Western Province. All of a sudden it became a reality. 'Ja', I’d been more of a happy-go-lucky guy during my playing career, dealt with the next game without much planning ahead, but as soon as that opportunity came and I became a full-time coach, it sunk in that perhaps it was where I should really be. People might not have thought all the “detail” was important to me, but I do have a passion for this game! I gradually moved from an assistant’s role to the head guy, with the WP under-21s, and that was awesome, an eye-opener which only enhanced my (appetite).
Houwing: How difficult is it, especially for someone with your convivial personality, to remind yourself that you are no longer one of the boys in the dressing room?
Fleck: Look, I don’t actually mind that issue too much. The way I position myself as a coach is not to be too top-heavy, or to consciously separate myself from the team. There is a line that needs to be there, (but) I like to think I have that ability to mingle quite easily with the players and management alike, and be myself in the process. The biggest thing I try to be is as authentic as possible, whether it be with a player, management member or supporter. In the beginning it was quite tough; I am still quite young and enjoy the social side of rugby, being with the players, hearing the banter. But you also have to be their “boss” and advisor. As a head coach you do have to distance yourself at times, and you are the guy making the final decision at the end of the day. But I don’t want to lose that relationship with the players. I pride myself in being able to blend in with the group, have fun with them. My view is don’t discourage “mateship”. We want a culture here where every coach is approachable, humble, natural. Players being treated like adults is important, and there must be respect both ways.
Houwing: I get the sense you are genuinely prepared to be challenged, rather than surround yourself with convenient yes-men immediately below your portfolio…
Fleck: Absolutely, I want to be challenged every day... whether by a player or a coach. That’s how I learn, improve. I don’t want yes-men. Look at Paul Feeney (the Stormers’ skills coach from New Zealand) for example: he comes from a different coaching background, different philosophies. I think if I was a guy who said “we’re doing it totally my way” I don’t think he would have stayed; left after two weeks. A lot of foreign coaches have previously left our shores, not able to properly feel they’re contributing on a meaningful basis. I’m very happy to accept my faults, my weaknesses, but I am prepared to work on them. I am prepared to go abroad to learn as much as I can, too.
Houwing: Which top coaches from your own playing days would you say you most latch onto for wisdom, perhaps both then and now in some cases, in your role?
Fleck: Well, go back to my school days, for starters. Basil Bey was a huge influence (at Bishops)... as much as anything, about how you behave as a man, on and off the field. The spirit of the game was something he was big on as well. If you look through my pro career, I am obviously a big fan of Nick (Mallett). I speak to him often; he gives good, constructive feedback and sometimes it is frank, and hard. That’s what I liked about him as a coach - straightforward and honest. I also like the fact that although he was quite a tough bloke, he still had the ability to mix easily with his players. He’s a very smart man, someone whose ear I bend for advice quite often. You know, I also enjoyed Harry Viljoen, and his philosophy; he pushed years back for a running game, keeping the ball alive. It took a lot of balls, back in the day, at a time when SA rugby was very structured and systematic. He dared to be different.
Houwing: Did any Eddie Jones qualities rub off on you, despite the much-publicised briefness of his Capetonian stint?
Fleck: Oh yes, absolutely. Again he is somebody I still speak to. I have met him, too, subsequent to him leaving here. Eddie is an extremely bright guy. His work ethic is second to none; he is on the ball all the time. He is also a tough customer, and his detail is exceptional. He puts that pressure on the players. He is comfortable in his own skin, and is also capable of relaxing and enjoying the good side of rugby. When it comes to his prep and his detail, he is quite outstanding. But his best quality, I think, is how he can simplify things. He can take a whole of information from coaches and players, and he has that ability to take that hatful of brilliant ideas and “dumb it all down” a bit, and put the ideas into practice. He can really make rugby seem incredibly simple.
Houwing: How much more settled do you feel in your position this year, compared to your inevitably frantic, rushed-appointment first as head coach?
Fleck: I was thrown in the deep end last year, a last-minute appointment. I was very keen on the job, yet very inexperienced too. I’d only been a head coach for a few months with the U21s. But the faith that Gert (Smal, director of rugby at Newlands) and the union showed in me obviously helped... and maybe the best thing that could have happened was being thrown in that deep end! I was obviously on the back foot; we had to plan on the run. There were tense times, interesting times, but that chaotic environment isn’t all bad for you. It was a great learning curve for me, and under the circumstances we did quite well last year. We began to change tactically, and our brand of rugby, in a small time frame. Going on work experience overseas, having two or three months to plan for the pre-season this time around... that’s made a positive difference. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin this year, whether dealing with players, media, the bosses, introducing new plans to players... all those things.
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