Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Super Rugby 2015 ordinary season ended on Saturday with an unusual, worrying degree of instability affecting the coaching berths of South Africa’s traditional juggernaut sides.
In short, the day will be remembered for the realisation that all three of the long-time domestic “superpowers” – Bulls, Stormers and Sharks – suddenly have vacancies for head coach as the competition expands yet again into a new format next year.
There is also still no certainty as to who will take on the unenviable task of trying to make the Port Elizabeth-based Kings even vaguely competitive again as they regain their place at the Super Rugby table in 2016.
That means that as things stand, only the Lions (much-lauded Johan Ackermann) and Cheetahs (freshly-installed Franco Smith) of the six SA franchises doing battle in the SANZAR competition next year have confirmed coaches.
The issue certainly stole the spotlight from the final round of matches, in which the Cheetahs humbled the Bulls at Loftus and the Sharks duly downed the Stormers “second team” with some ease as they increasingly warmed to their task after a near-inept start; it gave a fitting enough send-off to the overseas-bound Du Plessis brothers and Willem Alberts.
Unfortunately the Kings Park result, in which the Capetonians failed by some distance to even get a losing bonus point, only showed up the limitations of the collective SA challenge this year.
For although the tournament rules dictate that the conference-winning Stormers end third overall – and now go into a finals series “quarter-final” against the Brumbies at Newlands on Saturday (17:05) – they were actually seventh on pure points earned.
Of course a counter might be that a full-strength Stormers side might well have fared a great deal better in Durban, had they chosen not to rest the overwhelming majority of their core personnel.
But for a second year in succession, the SA cause looked particularly unconvincing and the coaches, generally speaking, have been under increasing fire over perceived sterile, arguably out-of-date game plans.
If there is already a dearth of really top-notch masterminds in the country, however, the situation may be about to get a whole lot worse.
It had already been known for some time that Allister Coetzee, who has quite consistently made the Stormers playoffs material in his six years in charge without going all the way to the main silverware yet, is leaving for Japan soon.
The Cape side are known to be in negotiations to try to woo back to South Africa former Sharks coach John Plumtree, the New Zealander who has provided invaluable input this season as assistant coach at the Hurricanes, runaway winners of the ordinary season honours.
Meanwhile it was learnt at the start of the weekend that Gary Gold, already officially the Sharks’ director of rugby this season but effectively head coach as well during a troubled, injury- and suspension-blighted campaign, will relinquish the “tracksuit” henceforth and play more of a background role – he will reportedly oversee the appointment of a new coach.
But on Saturday evening there were further, major coach-related ructions in the frontline South African landscape when Frans Ludeke stepped down as head coach of the Bulls with immediate effect following the 42-29 home roasting from a Cheetahs team that had lost heavily four times in a row ahead of the clash.
The Bulls ended a poor ninth overall and, although Ludeke boasts two Super Rugby titles with the side, the last was in 2010 and they have been especially pilloried since then for seemingly not moving with the times strategically.
As SuperSport pundit and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett said in reaction to news of Ludeke’s sidelining, the Bulls “should be in the playoffs every year”.
Studio colleague and former Loftus-based flyhalf doyen Naas Botha, meanwhile, said he believed the Bulls should guard against appointing a still-active player – a pointed reference to Victor Matfield – to the vacancy.
He made the point that few other sports would fast-track a retired player straight into a role of such high responsibility without him having gone through the coaching ranks from slightly lower levels first to prove his worth.
Mallett chipped in to draw a comparison with Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who was made assistant manager at Old Trafford upon retirement from an illustrious on-field career, rather than placed in full charge (Louis van Gaal has that role).
It may not hugely please many Bulls enthusiasts to have learnt that the franchise simultaneously announced on Saturday – as well as installing Nollis Marais as Currie Cup coach -- that CEO Barend van Graan has had his contract extended to 2019.
During his tenure, there have been several waves of departures of seasoned players, and the latest occurs immediately – eight bade farewell after the Cheetahs game, including two (Matfield and Akona Ndungane) to retirement, although Matfield is hanging on for a World Cup crack with the Boks later this year.
So neither of the Bulls or Kings jobs look massively attractive under present circumstances, with the Stormers and Sharks posts likely to attract broader interest and men of greater gravitas, perhaps.
Both outfits should retain enough high-quality players to make a good fist of 2016 and beyond, despite the mounting challenges posed by overseas club recruitment and the associated weak rand.
But the coaching situation is intriguing and volatile, with the possibility of some overlapping interest in certain candidates as four Super Rugby franchises from our shores crank up their bids to fill the gaps as rapidly as possible ...
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