THE end of Super Rugby is still weeks away but silly season has arrived in a rush with the flurry of movement in the coaches’ boxes around the country providing early grist for the rumour mill.
A couple of South African coaches are looking for fresh challenges while others have seen the writing on the wall — and in the newspaper headlines — and decided to quit. Coaches who started the season in charge of the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Cheetahs will not be back in 2016 and only the Lions’ impressive Johan Ackermann remains.
The Stormers’ Allister Coetzee is to go east to Japan, Gary Gold is moving upstairs at King’s Park while Frans Ludeke and Naka Drotské, who have been with the Bulls and Cheetahs for almost a decade, have jumped before they were pushed.
There is now also the vacancy down in Port Elizabeth where the rookie Southern Kings are joining an expanded Super Rugby competition next year. The Kings are well down the pecking order after winning only three of their seven Vodacom Cup games this season and finishing fifth in the South Section. They need a magician not a coach.
The Cheetahs have been quickest off the mark. Former Springbok Franco Smith took over from Drotské for their last two rounds and drew an enthusiastic response as the Cheetahs signed off for their poor season by dumping the lame, disenchanted Bulls 42-29 at their one-time fortress at Loftus. Smith’s major challenge will be to keep his talent in Bloemfontein long enough to mould a team and mount a challenge for a playoff place.
The Stormers are looking to former Sharks coach John Plumtree, now with the Hurricanes in Wellington, to replace Coetzee. A combination of the talent in the Western Province and the rugby nous of Plumtree, who knows South African rugby as well as anyone, would make for a most potent mix.
Plumtree has enjoyed a productive couple of years since being shown the door in Durban in 2013. He first went off to Dublin and moulded the Irish pack in the 2014 Six Nations triumph. There were whispers that he was then keen to return to Durban, but he has since settled back in New Zealand, coaching the Hurricanes, the dominant Super Rugby team.
But counting against a Plumtree return to South Africa is that he is still contracted to the Hurricanes while it would fly in the face of what he told The Witness late in June 2013 when he took his leave of King’s Park.
“The Sharks will always be my family in Durban and for this reason, I will never coach another South African team,” he said at the time.
Plumtree carries a hefty price tag these days but money should not be an issue for the Western Province Rugby Union. One of their financial backers is billionaire Johann Rupert, the richest person in South Africa. He is the fellow who forked out R40 million for a Cape buffalo with a horn span of over 53 inches; R4 million for a New Zealander with an astute rugby brain is a snip.
Another New Zealander, former All Black coach John Mitchell, says he has already turned down an offer from the Stormers, expressing reservations about the length of the contract and the composition of the support staff at Newlands.
The names of two failed Wallaby coaches, Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie, have also been thrown around but there seems no substance to these claims.
And so the list goes on. The current exchange rate obviously encourages the four franchises to buy local but it is worrying just how few South Africans appear to be in the running.
Those who seem to be best qualified, coaches such as Nick Mallett and Brendan Venter, are unavailable while others are contracted to overseas clubs. Swys de Bruin (Lions) has turned down a Kings’ offer and Jimmy Stonehouse is now one of the favourites for the Port Elizabeth post.
And what of the Sharks? Gary Gold said after the Sharks’ weekend win over the Stormers that there would not be “a clear out of coaching staff,” but that has already happened. Gold has confirmed that he will no longer be head coach and assistant Brad Macleod-Henderson resigned on Monday.
Gold says that in his role as director of rugby he wants to place the emphasis “on making sure all the Sharks teams (seniors and juniors) are playing the same rugby from school level up”.
Supporters will be hoping the rugby they saw from the Sharks in 2015 (or 2014 for that matter) will not be part of the new model. The Sharks, technically, tactically and in terms of basic skill, have lost their way.
The rugby grapevine has been thick with gossip about Gold’s likely successor. Mitchell, now a businessman based in Pietermaritzburg, almost inevitably heads the list but one Sharks board member has been banging on that Todd Blackadder, the former All Black captain and current coach of the Crusaders, will be appointed.
The seven-time champion Crusaders this year failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001 and they have not won the title since Blackadder took over in 2009. He is taking heavy flak from Crusaders supporters weaned on winning titles, but he is still under contract and says he is staying put in Christchurch.
The impression, rightly or wrongly, has been created that Sharks CEO John Smit already has something in the pipeline — or why else would Gold have popped up on Saturday night to confirm his change in jobs.
The Sharks will start another Super Rugby campaign in February 2016 with their fourth coach in four years as another follows in the footsteps of John Plumtree, Jake White and Gary Gold. The Sharks, their players and the supporters, need some continuity and a sound, rational game plan, particularly if the new playing style is to be spread across the age groups.
This time the Sharks, and Smit, have to get it right. The problem, of course, is that finding good help these days is not that easy