Cape Town – Eddie Jones was set to be a vital, hugely proven “balancer” to an otherwise dangerously green-looking panel of head coaches for South African teams in Super Rugby 2016.
His appointment to the Stormers has understandably generated great excitement in these parts, not only given the globe-trotting depth and quality of his CV, but also the much-needed dose of foreign expertise and ideas he’d be infusing to the currently fairly staid, labouring domestic scene.
There is a relatively unscientific theory, for instance, that our national team “isn’t ready” for an overseas coach – how do you define that readiness, I ask? – but if Jones made significant strides at the helm of the Stormers, you can bet some of that reluctance at green-and-gold level would melt in a hurry.
Yet signs point with increasing vigour to the former Brumbies, Reds, Australia and Japan mastermind succumbing imminently to the lure of the vacant, lucrative England national team job.
RFU versus WPRU? Pound versus rand? If Jones does become one of the shortest-lived occupants of a major sporting post, the bosses at Newlands will have been well-nigh powerless to prevent it.
Indeed, given the talk of the local Super Rugby franchise banking a few million rand in compensation should he be plucked away barely having started, you could say it would amount to an astute bit of business (even if inadvertent).
Still, not only does it leave the Stormers post vacant again with time fast running out to the new season – they were best-performing SA franchise in the experienced Allister Coetzee’s swansong campaign earlier this year – but it also exposes anew the lack of established mettle amongst the remainder of the head coaches in the six-strong SA Super Rugby camps.
As things stand, the Lions’ Johan Ackermann is the most deeply-rooted domestic coach in the competition ... and that based on a mere two seasons in charge at Emirates Airline Park, featuring 12th and eighth-placed overall finishes respectively.
It is true that he has worked wonders with pretty modest resources, and produced a more inspiring brand of rugby than most other local rivals, but in certain respects he is still only cutting his teeth in the SANZAR competition.
Meanwhile at another “big” SA franchise, the Sharks, Gary Gold is a fairly reluctant head coach who doubles as director of rugby and would probably rather be upstairs than too active in a tracksuit and with a whistle.
He recently announced a newly-constructed panel of back-up personnel, including Super Rugby first-timers like Ryan Strudwick and Robert du Preez.
In Gold’s first season in charge earlier this year, the Sharks ended an undesirable 11th overall, to the chagrin of many of their seemingly shrinking fan base, albeit that they were also bedevilled by injuries.
The Bulls faithful in Pretoria await the maiden season in the competition of Nollis Marais, who begins a four-year deal after eight years of Frans Ludeke in the hot seat.
Marais was lauded for the way he tried to evolve the Blue Bulls’ backline play in this year’s Currie Cup, where he drove them to a second-placed finish and home semi-final, but Super Rugby is a very different kettle of fish – he is a total novice, not having even served at that level as an assistant at Loftus.
The situation is no better in either Bloemfontein or Port Elizabeth, in terms of any been-there-done-that sort of pedigree.
Bear in mind that the Cheetahs will have former Bok utility back Franco Smith pulling the strings, and although he has at least been a backline-specialist assistant previously while veteran Naka Drotske was still chief coach, he only took the full reins himself with two games left of this year’s Super Rugby roster.
His men were trounced 58-33 at home by the Waratahs, although they did end with a bit of a flourish in beating the Bulls 42-29 at Loftus.
As for the deeply troubled Southern Kings, they have just confirmed the especially raw, 35-year-old Brent Janse van Rensburg as head coach for their 2016 return to the competition – following a single campaign in charge of their modest Currie Cup side.
On the plus side, he will receive some assuring aid from a SARU group likely to include cerebral Rassie Erasmus and the Springboks’ Scottish breakdown guru Richie Gray.
Generally, though, it is difficult to imagine the South African Super Rugby head coaches collectively being anything but the most lightweight in terms of prior, high-level achievement when measured up against counterparts from the other two major competing nations, New Zealand and Australia.
South African rugby as a whole – and not just the Stormers -- really needed a couple of seasons of Eddie Jones’ methods seeping into the broad culture.
Ah well, if it’s not to be ...
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