In an exclusive interview, ex-All Black coach JOHN HART discusses how the Springboks have adapted their game, why Steve Hansen is the best in the business and how the Boks will fare in Australasia…
Sport24 asked: What’s your assessment after two rounds of the Rugby Championship?
John Hart: The Springboks and All Blacks have set the pace with back-to-back wins. Argentina and Australia are now behind the eight-ball, and it appears to be a two-horse race between South Africa and New Zealand for the Rugby Championship title. I think the current South African team looks very interesting. They are different from past Springbok sides in the sense that they are going for more mobility, particularly with Siya Kolisi and Jaco Kriel playing on the flanks. It also seems as though they have a conditioning programme, which is more attuned to playing a high speed game. In the past, Springbok teams traditionally relied heavily on their physical presence and dominance. However, the oval-shaped game has advanced. The current team still make use of their physicality, but they have looked to use the ball more. The Boks are certainly after more mobility and their players look fitter. Meanwhile, the All Blacks will be fairly pleased with their start to the Rugby Championship and have retained the Bledisloe Cup. However, I reckon they would be worried about having conceded nine tries in two matches. Certainly in the second half in Sydney, they were far from satisfactory and their bench failed to fire. In the end, the All Blacks won the game in Dunedin because of their scrum and their superior ability to manage the restarts. However, they would be concerned about their error-rate and particularly their defensive lapses, which led to the Wallabies scoring five tries at Forsyth Barr Stadium. The leakage will be of concern to the All Blacks, but by the same token when the game is played at such pace and intensity for 80 minutes, gaps are always likely to appear within defences.
Sport24 asked: Michael Cheika questioned some of Nigel Owens’ calls. Your view?
John Hart: As the game today is played at such a high-tempo, there are going to be marginal refereeing calls from time to time. I don’t envy the modern day international referee, with the players so fit and physical. In terms of the Brodie Retallick incident, I guess the proof will be in the pudding as to whether or not there is any action taken by the citing commissioner. (Cheika was particularly vexed by the New Zealander upending flanker Ned Hannigan as they were getting to their feet following a tackle). I think we should leave that with the citing commissioner because it’s very easy for us to bag referees. I thought Owens did a pretty good job on the weekend in a very frenetic game played at great pace. Referees have a very difficult role whereas, sitting at home, we have the luxury of replays and not being involved in the heat of moment makes it much easier for us.
Sport24 asked: How do players today follow the lead of the late, great Sir Colin Meads?
John Hart: I guess it comes down the maxim of “better people make better All Blacks.” Sir Colin was Mr Rugby in New Zealand. He was an absolute powerhouse on the field and had great values off it. He never forgot his roots and was a very powerful figure within the oval game in New Zealand. He is recognised as probably the greatest player we have ever had. Meads became an icon on the field, and then carried it on off the field with everything he did in New Zealand rugby. I believe there is more off-field pressure on players today. In terms of the Aaron Smith and Jerome Kaino cases, you’ve got to be very careful about making moral judgements. However, professional players today have to realise that their lives aren’t their own. With social media the way it is, the old adage of “what went on tour, stayed on tour” in the amateur days is gone. There is a firm duty on the players to understand their responsibilities as individuals to the game and to the local community. In terms of how I handled such issues during my time as All Black coach, it was about standards - time-keeping, dress and fair play - and having the team understand the importance of discipline. I have always been a great believer in discipline and standards, which remain fundamental to the success of any team. That is always something I have believed in strongly and I suspect most coaches still do.
Sport24 asked: You were the first All Black coach to lead New Zealand to a series win in South Africa. Do you miss those types of tours?
John Hart: Yeah. We actually had a management celebration last Thursday commemorating 21 years since we won the series in Africa. Those times, as we all agreed, were very special and one major disappointment in the game today is that, aside from the British and Irish Lions coming together every four years to take on Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, we don’t have enough time for touring teams to play provincial as well as international sides. That is unfortunately the way of the professional game and the manner in which the calendar has become so clogged. For me, there is too much rugby being played and the game is experiencing overkill in terms of exposure. However, commercial realities run the game today and, with TV rights being so important, it’s difficult to see any other way going forward. The most important thing, which I wrote about in my book back in the 90s, is that we establish a global season where there is far more coordination of tours, matches and competitions between the northern and southern hemisphere. It’s a positive step that World Rugby has made progress in this regard and they have unveiled a new global calendar from 2020 onwards.
Sport24 asked: How highly do you rate incumbent All Black coach Steve Hansen?
John Hart: In Hansen, the All Blacks are currently coached by probably the best coach they have ever had. He brings authenticity and connection to the position. He is well respected by the players and has a really good relationship with the key stakeholders. All those elements are crucial to being a successful All Black coach because there is so much responsibility on you in the modern professional era. There is also so much connectivity required in terms of commercial and media relationships, as well as within the team itself. I enjoyed my time as an All Black coach, but it was also difficult because it was the start of the professional era. We came totally from amateur rugby straight to the professional era, so that was a challenge in itself. Man-management and selection were probably the key elements that I looked at. If and when Steve decides to step aside, I believe the NZRU will want to have someone who has been intimately connected and part of the All Black team and the Super Rugby programme. That would give Ian Foster a huge leg up, but you have also got to look at coaches like Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland. I’m not going to make a comment on whether they (SA Rugby) have done that (succession planning) well or not, but succession planning and coaching development is crucial. The All Blacks are such a good side because they get well coached at all levels. Coaching in New Zealand has been the strong point. The five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises are all extraordinary well coached. Moreover, they are very well conditioned and there is a real coordinated programme from the All Blacks through to the Super Rugby teams. And that is probably the lesson Australia and South Africa need to learn if they intend to attain consistency and long-term success. That comes about through integration of the physical conditioning development programmes and coaching programmes between Super Rugby and the coach of the national team.
Sport24 asked: Was Jonah Lomu the most naturally gifted player you ever coached?
John Hart: Michael Jones and Jeff Wilson were probably more naturally gifted than Jonah Lomu in terms of skillset, but Jonah was a colossus and true icon of the game. Skills were part of Jonah’s game, but he fundamentally destroyed opposition by way of strength, speed and power. I’m always left in wonderment at what he might have been like had he not played with a medical handbrake throughout his career and had had full aerobic capacity. I don’t think that there will ever be another Jonah Lomu. I got concerned when, at one stage, I saw Julian Savea being touted as another Lomu. Savea is not a Lomu because the latter was a unique rugby player. I think that anyone that aspires to be the next Lomu is going to be disappointed because he was a one-of-a-kind rugby player and was the first true international global superstar of the game. He was someone that I loved very dearly and whom I was close to. I was really privileged to be able to coach him, but I did so at a time when he was always struggling with his illness and fitness. Another player from Jonah’s generation that we lost too soon is Joost van der Westhuizen. Joost was an All Black player in many ways, and we would have loved to have had him playing for us. He was combative, skilful and a true competitor. It was a very sad sight to see what happened to him with motor neuron disease. He was a wonderful footballer and was someone the All Black class of 1996 - he played a significant role during the three-match series in South Africa - and the All Blacks after them always had huge respect for.
Sprot24 asked: How do you rate South Africa’s chances on their Australasian tour?
John Hart: The Springboks would want to beat the Wallabies to have a chance against the All Blacks. The Wallabies will be hurting, having been exposed at the set-piece and at restarts. If the Springboks are also able to target that area and have the defensive patterns in place, then they can defeat the Wallabies. And if they beat the Wallabies in Perth, I foresee them providing a real contest for the All Blacks in Albany. The Springboks will be playing the All Blacks at a different venue this campaign, so that will be helpful for them. I’m not sure whether Allister Coetzee will stay with Kolisi and Kriel on the flanks, but I’m in favour of that approach because having ball skills and ability at the breakdown is crucial if you are going to beat the All Blacks. If you look at the Bok team across the field, the back three is an area where they are probably the least consistent and it’s a slight weakness. You certainly wouldn’t want to be weak in the back three against the All Blacks because their kicking and chasing game is pretty effective. The next challenge for the All Blacks is against Argentina at Yarrow Stadium. I reckon South Africa would probably have preferred to play New Zealand now rather than after the Argentina Test because the match provides the All Blacks with an opportunity to tidy up their lot.
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