Rugby World Cup 2011

NZ coach might lift Bok game

2011-10-11 13:01
John Mitchell (Gallo)

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 Smal.

I have no instant aversion to any of this trio; certainly fewer reservations than I harboured when De Villiers succeeded Jake White.

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 came.

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 Springbok recipe.

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 ...


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