Bok coach: It's a pity 'Plum' has faded

2019-11-25 13:25
John Plumtree (Getty Images)
John Plumtree (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Deon Davids and Jacques Nienaber seem to be trading places quite liberally in the rugby media’s perceived pecking order for inside lane when it comes to the vacant Springbok head coaching mantle.

While World Cup-winning mastermind Rassie Erasmus is destined to retain a firm guiding hand anyway - that will understandably be the wish of many - in his now more specialist capacity as director of rugby, the berth he has quit remains a demanding, high-pressure one and will need a strong stomach, suitable personality and, ideally, track record for its occupant.

With all that in mind, I may not be alone in having niggling reservations at this point about both Nienaber and Davids.

The former is overwhelmingly renowned, after all, for his wisdom in defensive techniques and structuring; it has allowed him to have a significantly “background” role which he may well relish, while he has no prior experience at all of head coaching at either franchise/provincial or international level.

As for Davids, he has similarly not been too rigorously tested at a level agreeably close to Test rugby … for example, by masterminding a really major South African franchise in Super Rugby, though that is really no fault of his own: he has simply never been given a crack at the post yet in one of the “big four” franchises.

While the 51-year-old is at least well-travelled domestically in a coaching capacity, much of it has been with “second-tier” unions or causes, although he is rightly entitled to dine out on his steering of the Southern Kings - with limited playing talent - to six wins and a praiseworthy 11th overall in an 18-team Super Rugby campaign, ironically the last the PE-based outfit would play in the southern hemisphere competition.

It has been choppier sailing for him subsequently, including in early exposure to the altered demands of PRO14 rugby with the Kings before he was eventually side-lined.

With both Nienaber and Davids, I have a suspicion (even if perhaps unfairly?) that any elevation to Bok head coach would be a bit like asking the manager of, say, a Bournemouth or Burnley, to suddenly steer a Manchester United or Arsenal … a totally different kettle of fish, and with absolutely no guarantees of success in a greatly more acid-examination landscape where success is expected rather than a “bonus”.

In that context, I am a little disappointed that the name of John Plumtree, very much part of discussion around the vacancy just two or three weeks ago, has dimmed - or so it appears - in the speculation.

As the Boks negotiated the knockout stages of RWC 2019 en route to the Webb Ellis Cup, the popular former Sharks player and coach was a fairly regular presence among SuperSport’s studio guests, and playfully ribbed by celebrated recent Springboks around him both for his occasional references to “we” in assessing South Africa, and over the fact that he had been linked with the Bok job that’s up for grabs.

Overwhelmingly, it appeared, figures like Jean de Villiers, Schalk Burger and Victor Matfield - all past Bok skippers – were receptive (or at very least not noticeably averse) to the idea of Plumtree putting his hat in the ring, despite his heritage in the land of the old enemy, New Zealand.

As solid and usually straight-talking a “rugby man” as you will find, Plumtree has never kept secret his affection for this country: it is reflected anyway in his Durban playing tenure (around 10 years from 1988) and then six years on the Sharks coaching staff - almost all in the head capacity - between 2007 and 2012.

More recently, he guided the Hurricanes to second place to the legendary Crusaders (just five point behind them, and only pushed to fourth overall after ordinary season by controversial, artificial considerations) in the ever-imperious New Zealand conference in Super Rugby 2019.

Plumtree has a wealth of rugby knowledge (some of it from north of the equator, too), a calm head on his big shoulders, and would almost certainly have handled the public relations side of things with consistent ease and aplomb.

He seems relatively ego-free, minimising the risk of major differences with Erasmus: instead you might only have teed up a great, cross-cultural meeting of fertile rugby minds with one, common purpose.

What’s more, there would have been no special cause, based on historical considerations, to fear that Plumtree would have been a dissenter - unlike someone like unashamedly conservative compatriot Laurie Mains in a Johannesburg role years back - over transformation requirements related to the Bok cause.

There has been mounting talk in the Land of the Long White Cloud that Plumtree may, instead, now be drawn into the All Black picture, even if not necessarily in the most senior, post-Steve Hansen capacity.

Plumtree perhaps now being out of the Bok race, for whatever reason, and bolstering the rebuilding All Blacks with his massive expertise, cultivated primarily in two of the very greatest rugby nations of them all?

To me that somehow smacks of an unfortunate double negative, looking at it purely from a Bok perspective …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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