Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Lions coach EUGENE ELOFF talks about his impending move to America, why the Junior Boks bombed and the exciting South African derby at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: You have been appointed head coach of the Austin Huns RFC. How did the move come about, and what challenges lie in wait upon your arrival in the United States next month?
Eugene Eloff: I received a call from the Huns Rugby Football Union asking if I could do an interview, with a view to joining them as their head coach. I think their interest in my services came about through USA Eagles co-captain Todd Clever, whom I coached at the Lions. He was the first American to play Super Rugby. A week after my interview - there were two candidates on the shortlist - I was appointed as coach. They don’t have a professional set-up, so I’m building them from ground-level up. Our pro-team will consist of 40 contracted players and four contracted coaches. My passion has always been about putting structures in place and building a positive environment. It will be a great new adventure for me, and I have already done the tactical planning ahead of my arrival in the United States in mid-August. I’ve devised our principles on attack, defence, counter-attack, broken field and kicking play. I’ve also drawn up our strategic plan, mission statement and code of conduct.
Sport24 asked: Rugby is the fastest growing team sport in USA. How do they harness the interest?
Eugene Eloff: First and foremost, they will have to excite the different communities about rugby. American football, basketball and baseball are the big sports in the America, but Rugby Sevens has had a huge impact on their sporting landscape. All of a sudden Americans are excited about rugby because they think that they can win at the Olympics. The game’s shorter format has ignited the country’s enthusiasm when it comes to rugby. However, in terms of the 15-man game, we will have to go from state to state where PRO Rugby teams will be implemented and gain community involvement. USA rugby possesses players with size, speed and power and it’s now about them understanding the tactics of the game, the relevant strategy and, most of all, improving their skill-set. From a Huns perspective, I’ll look to develop their ball skills, attacking skills, off-loading, stepping and running into space. The foundation phase will focus on the basics, fitness levels and then skills work. Many of the players have played Gridiron and the concentration span is for short bursts. The players will have to adapt so as to concentrate for 80 minutes. That is the culture we have to create.
Sport24 asked: Former Lions coach John Mitchell is now at the helm of the USA Eagles. Your take?
Eugene Eloff: It was a great appointment for USA Rugby because John is the right man at this stage. We have spoken already and he is excited about me coming across to the States. We will work together at times and who knows, I might still live the dream of coaching the Eagles one day. Mitchell’s vision for USA Rugby will be my vision at Huns. When I discussed the strategic planning with management, I said the most important thing is to develop and nurture our own young players and they agreed. Though we are now contracting a professional side, very soon we will be implementing a high performance centre and academies in which to build them up. Youth development has always been my passion and the reason I have enjoyed good results with juniors. At youth level, you lay the foundation and the building blocks for the future. The enthusiasm, the desire, the thoroughness and the mental capacity of the game itself is honed at the grassroots level.
Sport24 asked: You guided the SA Under-19 team to Junior World Championship victories in 2003 and 2005. What led to your success and what did you make of the Junior Boks’ display in the UK?
Eugene Eloff: My success at Under-19 level was owing to the fact that the guys played for each other and were part of happy teams. In both finals, we outplayed New Zealand from a physical and tactical point of view and turned them around. I believe there is a combination of factors for the Junior Springboks’ underwhelming campaign in Manchester. The team was very stagnant and played a boring pattern of rugby, and I don’t know whether we had the correct mix of players. I felt the team was very flat-footed and from the beginning of the tournament there was no excitement in our team. It was as if we were waiting for the wave to break. Once the Junior Springboks started running in the second half of their semi-final against England, they had their hosts on the proverbial ropes. In my book, rugby is like a boxing match and when you have your opponent against the ropes, you have to knock him out. The South Africans were unable to do that and they paid the ultimate price.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the overall strength of South African rugby at this moment?
Eugene Eloff: The Junior Springboks’ struggling, the SA ‘A’ side losing the series 2-0 to the England Saxons and the Springboks scrapping to a 2-1 series win over Ireland serves as a good wake-up call and proves that we are not untouchable in the world of rugby. I maintain the belief that before you go up to the mountains, you have to go down to the valleys. I’m glad for Allister Coetzee that we won the Test series against Ireland and I’m aware of the immense pressure he was under after the defeat in Cape Town. While the honeymoon period came to an abrupt end, the supporters need to relax and back the coaches. I am an eternal optimist and particularly excited to see how the Springboks progress during the Rugby Championship. The Boks need to bring new tactics, give some of the youngsters a chance and use in-form players. Rugby is the same game from primary school through to national level, the only difference as you go up the levels is that time and space is less. In Test rugby, like Super Rugby, the margin for error is so small - one mistake can cost you the match. I believe Coetzee can take a leaf out of Eddie Jones’s playbook. Besides being a cunning, intelligent coach, Jones doesn’t suffer fools gladly and has refused to take any nonsense from the administrators. Moreover, Jones’s basics of the game are sound. And, while I don’t like the, at times, boring brand of rugby England have employed, hats off to them because it has worked like a treat.
Sport24 asked: As a professional coach, what is your pet peeve in terms of South African rugby?
Eugene Eloff: The fact that we are over-coaching our teams. We are not giving our players and decision-makers enough opportunity to make decisions because we coach on the side of the field over a walkie talkie. I believe you can coach the players in the week, but not on game day. To offer an analogy, it’s like a dog on a leash. In the beginning, you let the leash go out one metre, two metres, three and eventually you loosen it. It’s the same when empowering players. You give them the tools and mechanics and then unleash them and let them make the decision, as well as mistakes, so that they can learn. But I guarantee you - more times than not the players will make great on-field decisions. Your basics need to be in place, but you ultimately need to allow the players to play what is in front of them. The current Lions team is the closest to that philosophy, and if there’s a South African team that can beat any New Zealand side at this stage, it’s them. Rugby has changed and has become a game for 15 athletes. The Lions have forged the best balance of our local teams.
Sport24 asked: What are your views ahead of the Lions v Sharks match at Ellis Park on Saturday?
Eugene Eloff: Both coaches - Gary Gold and Johan Ackermann - would already have done their homework in terms of how to beat the other side. I think the Sharks will try to slow down the game and frustrate the Lions and not allow them to generate momentum. Meanwhile, the Lions will attempt to speed up the game and try to tire out the Sharks. I’m backing the home side to win by 10 points on Saturday. It’s not only because I’m an ardent Lions supporter and was in their coaching system for 11 years, the bottom line is that they are playing the best brand of rugby in South Africa.
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