Johannesburg - One of the things I’ve not been able to understand as a sports hack in this country is the reluctance of our rugby coaches to talk about the sport with the media.
With the exception of the likes of John McFarland, John Dobson, Jake White and Heyneke Meyer, most local coaches pass up the opportunity not only to discuss the game, but also to educate the public via the media about it.
Moral high ground
I remember the ridicule a colleague suffered years ago at a then Springbok coach’s hands after daftly suggesting that a blindside flanker replace an injured fetcher for the next game.
Sometimes it feels as though most of our coaches would rather we cocked things up so they can expose our ignorance.
It’s an understandable instinct to have, especially given how opinionated we can be about the scrum when half of the time we think the referee is talking about a brand of dandruff shampoo when he calls head and shoulders.
But surely the moral high ground feels that much better when you’ve actually tried to educate said errant journalist?
Attack and defence
I was reminded of how much fun talking rugby could be at an informal breakfast with the Crusaders’ coaching staff last week.
Organised by Investec, the Crusaders were still keen that what they said not be reported, but as illuminating as what they said was at times, it wasn’t exactly state secrets they parted with.
The first eye-opener for me was that they have two coaches who work with the backs in Brad Mooar, who was at the Kings a few years ago, and former Crusaders and All Blacks fullback Leon MacDonald.
MacDonald works with the outside backs (outside centre and the back three) and also concentrates on first-phase attack and defence, while Mooar, the official assistant coach, works with the inside backs (scrum half, fly half and inside centre), and deals with attack and defence in later phases.
With head coach Scott Robertson also having cut his teeth as a defence coach, this means the Crusaders almost always have at least two voices when it comes to defence, as opposed to the one poor soul around whose neck we hang all the responsibility.
Looking at the qualifications Robertson and MacDonald have between them, it’s easy to see how they’ve effected such a turnaround on the seven-time champions who were unbeaten after 10 games this season going into their match against the Hurricanes and who last won Super Rugby in 2008.
Not only are they both former All Blacks, they have won multiple Super Rugby titles as players at the Crusaders and have actually been successful as coaches before, MacDonald helping guide the Tasman Makos to the Mitre 10 Cup final last year, and Robertson winning two of those titles and the World Under-20 championship.
The contrast with South African coaches is that, while they may be roughly the same age, they, through no fault of their own if you consider how senior coaches no longer coach in South Africa, are cutting their teeth at the business end of Super Rugby.
It was also refreshing to hear how they dealt with the seemingly pending extinction of the openside flank owing to how referees severely penalise them.
Empowered the coaches
While Chris Cloete has raged against the machine as the only fetcher in South African franchise rugby, the Kiwis have sought to keep theirs by insisting that they handle and run like backs so as to beef up their contribution to more than just stealing, slowing down and quickening the ball at the ruck.
Having rubbed shoulders with their New Zealand counterparts, there is no way South African coaches have not taken note of how differently things are done there, which means we can only surmise that they are not being given the support to imitate some of those structures.
If we’re not happy with seeing the Stormers and the Bulls looking headless just because they dared to try something new, or the Cheetahs blowing substantial leads with alarming regularity, then it’s time rugby unions empowered the coaches they have by upskilling them and backing them through failure while they grow.
The time for superficial solutions to structural problems is over.
Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa