Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Blitzboks coach CHESTER WILLIAMS talks about the current team’s success, if Allister Coetzee should be backed or sacked and previews the popular Cape Town Sevens.
Sport24 asked: What are your recollections of coaching the Blitzboks from 2001 to 2003?
Chester Williams: I have fond memories of my time in charge of the Springbok Sevens team. I had great experiences coaching players like Neil Powell and Marius Schoeman, who have gone on to become coaches and managers within the system. Those types of players had a deep understanding of the game and it was great to work with them. During the 2001-02 series, we finished as runners-up in the World Sevens Series behind New Zealand and at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester we won a bronze medal. However, it was not all smooth sailing. When I took over, the lack of fitness of our Sevens players was my biggest concern. We had been selecting players who were being conditioned to play 15-a-side rugby and Sevens is a totally different game. We revised our Sevens programme and fitness became a non-negotiable. Once I got the players fit, I was able to work on their skills. The players that I coached were very easy to manage, they were disciplined and it was great to work with them every day. At the time, we wanted to be the best at Sevens rugby and I believe we put the building blocks in place in order to achieve that goal. We slowly but surely changed the players’ perceptions that they were not good enough to win big tournaments. The players responded naturally to me, and they had a burning desire to be successful as a Sevens outfit.
Sport24 asked: Fast forward 14 years, what sets the Blitzboks apart from the pack?
Chester Williams: The Blitzboks are not just a rugby team but are a family and the collective is always more important than the individual. The current team is amazing and they took all the principles we put in place, refined them and got even better. The Blitzboks are a band of brothers and all of them look after, respect, trust and work for each other between the four white lines. As Neil Powell recently tweeted: “It’s never about the individual but always about the team.” Apart from being such a talented group of players, I believe the point of difference between the Blitzboks and the other teams at this stage is their work ethic, discipline and camaraderie. Sevens has become a serious business, but it’s crucial to keep training fun and attractive for the players. I must take my hat off to Neil and the management team for always looking to innovate. Credit must also go to SA Rugby for given the Sevens programme all its support. The organisation has put the right structures in place, which has enhanced the talent we have at our disposal. It speaks volumes that a number of Sevens players were stars in the most recent Currie Cup campaign. The Springbok Sevens, who won five tournaments last year on their way to claiming the overall world series title, are based at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS) and form part of an impressive high performance environment.
Sport24 asked: In stark contrast, what have you made of the Springbok struggles?
Chester Williams: I believe a combination of factors have contributed to the Boks’ slide to sixth in the World Rugby rankings. The balance between the backs and forwards doesn’t seem to be working and it’s a concern that the players aren’t gelling well. I’m not too sure what’s happening with the Boks from a game play perspective and, when it comes to strategy, I can’t put my finger on what they are trying to achieve. From the outside looking it, we can’t see that there is a definite plan in place. Sometimes the only game plan seems to be the kicking and I’m not sure why, when we are on the front foot, we are kicking away possession. Our tactics are a big question mark for me. In terms of team selection, I wouldn’t say I have been disappointed, but the recently concluded end-of-year tour represented a great opportunity to give a player like Warrick Gelant an opportunity to showcase his talent and fit into the team in his rightful position of fullback. I believe the Boks missed a trick by not giving Gelant an opportunity to stake his claim at fullback. (Andries Coetzee started all 13 Tests for South Africa this season). A further area of concern for the Springboks is the number 9 position. It appears as if the selectors are not sure what they are looking for. It’s up to the coaching staff to outline the scrumhalf’s role, responsibility and the attributes he needs to bring to the Springbok team. I’m not too sure who is the answer at scrumhalf for South Africa because I don’t know what the Bok game plan is and how they see a scrumhalf playing the game. When picking playing personnel, you have to be clear in terms of the brand of rugby you want to play. At the moment it’s difficult because they Boks haven’t settled on a clear playing style and they are lacking an identity. I would like to see the Springboks play more of an expansive, attack-minded game and they need to find the balance between a kicking and running game. I feel that that has always been the Springboks’ strength, but at the moment the balance seems to be off. I can’t say too much about the influence of the Bok wingers this season because they really didn’t have much ball to work with. There weren’t enough opportunities created for them by the inside backs. The Springbok wingers are good players in their own right but the question is: Do they have enough freedom within the structure and are they backed by the coaches and management to go out and play with ball in hand?
Sport24 asked: In your opinion, should Allister Coetzee be in the firing line?
Chester Williams: Allister Coetzee has copped plenty of criticism because the results haven’t gone our way and we haven’t played good rugby. As a coach, it’s challenging because you need time with your players and coaching staff in order to become a cohesive unit. With Johann van Graan and Brendan Venter having taken their leave, there will be a new management team in place in 2018. I believe Allister can still do the job as national coach and, with Rassie Erasmus’ support behind him, he could be successful in the next year or two. We are at a point in Springbok rugby where we need intelligent coaches that think outside the box. I was close to being appointed Springbok coach in 2004, but unfortunately I didn’t make it. (Williams lost out to Jake White, who guided the Springboks to the 2007 Rugby World Cup title). Of course I still have dreams to get involved somehow with the Springbok team, but I have to bide my time and make sure that I get there whenever the time is right. I’m currently head coach of the UWC rugby team and this season we won the Varsity Shield, which was a great achievement. We are not too unhappy about failing to earn promotion this season because it will afford us more time to develop a team that can prove competitive in the Varsity Cup.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the rate of transformation in SA rugby?
Chester Williams: If you look at the likes of Allister Coetzee, Peter de Villiers and Deon Davids it shows that there are enough opportunities for coaches of colour at a high level. Black coaches are also being given an opportunity in the Varsity Cup and Shield competitions. They are being handed an opportunity because those who run the game in the country are demanding this change. It’s vital that black coaches and players are afforded equal opportunity in South Africa because I believe that is what sport is all about. In terms of the rules, rugby is a fair game and we would like to see that on the field as well when it comes to selections in South Africa. I believe 50% black player representation by 2019 is an achievable target and I presume that we will be able to do it. SA Rugby probably has a business plan in place to ensure that they achieve that goal. Black players add value to SA rugby and they are showing that they can make a contribution to the South African game at all levels. Quotas have forced coaches to pick black talent and at national level these players have mostly been successful. The SA rugby landscape is changing, but there are players who haven't been afforded sufficient opportunities, which is my greatest concern in terms of transformation. The end goal is that no one speaks about transformation and the Blitzboks are the living embodiment of that.
Sport24 asked: Your take ahead of the Cape Town Sevens this weekend?
Chester Williams: The Cape Town Sevens is the second best Sevens tournament, behind Hong Kong, but it will soon be number one. The atmosphere at Cape Town Stadium is amazing and I will certainly be attending. The Blitzboks must stick to what has made them successful and look to feed off the energy of their home crowd. The hosts have been drawn in Pool A where they will tackle Kenya, France and Russia. (The latter two failed to win a single pool match in the season’s opener in Dubai). It’s a very nice pool for South Africa and there won’t be too much pressure on the home side on day one. The Blitzboks will definitely go through as top-place finishers in their pool. They are the favourites in the Mother City and their real challenges will only come during the knock-out fixtures. England and New Zealand pose a potential threat to the Blitzboks’ domination - they looked very good in Dubai - and are the two teams the Blitzboks will have to be wary of. However, South Africa’s primary focus is on their own game and they have found an excellent balance between skill, speed and physicality. Owing to the Blitzboks’ speed, opponents can’t get around them and their only other option is to go through them. However, because the Blitzboks are strong and physical in contact and boast the best defence in the 7-man code, their rivals struggle to get tries against them.
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