SARU Turns Politics Down A Notch And Focuses On Rugby Success

Rassie Erasmus, the new GM of the Springboks. Wonder who he has his eye on in the draft?

The South African Rugby Union have just appointed Rassie Erasmus as the Springbok general manager. ESPN reports that The former Stormers coach will take on responsibility for the high performance teams and will also be involved with the Springboks when they are in camp.”

Crazy Piet oversaw the Boks winning the series against the Lions and a Tri-Nations tournament victory, but there were always questions over how much he brought to the World Cup-winning team that Jake White left him.

With former Blue Bulls supremo Heyneke Meyer already installed as head coach of the Boks, this is a fascinating, far-sighted appointment from SARU, and an indication that there has been a serious change of opinion about what defines the strategic level of operations of the organisation.

Crazy Piet de Villiers was seen from the first day of his tenure as a political appointment, and rumours were rife throughout his tenure that a coterie of highly experienced players in his squad [namely John Smit, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez] ‘ran’ the team. De Villiers was an idiosyncratic coach and tactless communicator with the media, and too often seemed like a rash, headstrong street-fighter who had been promoted to a general but simply wasn’t up to the job.

When commenting on the rugby set-ups in other countries, you’re always speaking from a position of relative ignorance. In your own neck of the woods, you likely know some of the people involved, you know the journalists and whether they’re straight-shooters or grudge-holding moaners, you hear the rumours and half-truths; when looking at other leagues or international teams, like the French or South Africans, you simply don’t have that level of knowledge or that feel for the attitudes of the people involved.

What Counts As Strategic? 

With that proviso in place, it looks like SARU have taken a step away from being a player in a well-intentioned [and almost certainly government-encouraged] ploy to use the position of the Springboks – both inside the country as a totem for white South Africans, and outside the country as a showpiece for South African excellence on the world sporting stage – and especially the role of the head coach, as a piece in the complicated, heartfelt and potentially divisive game that is race politics in the republic.

Instead of thinking strategically in terms of government initiatives and promoting racial equality on a sporting and cultural level, those at the head of SARU have narrowed their focus to concentrate on the strategic imperative of success in test rugby over the next five to ten years.

Having an extremely visible former head coach and international as general manager is a bold and progressive move. If there’s discontent between Meyer and Erasmus on a personal level, or if there are issues over lines of communication or heirarchy, then a run of bad results will blow the whole thing wide open. On the other hand, if clear limits and directives are already in place as to how the relationship should work, this has the potential to be an extremely effective working relationship.

The Hydra

The Hydra: Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen and Graham Henry. An enormous amount of coaching knowledge assembled together and – as far as we knew – pulling in the same direction.

Different countries do things in different ways. New Zealand settled on the three-headed hydra approach in recent years, and while admittedly Graham Henry was always acknowledged as the head coach, both Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen were highly visible. Now that Hansen has been appointed the new head coach of the All Blacks, he has brought in Aussie McLean as defense coach, the Chiefs’ Ian Foster as backs coach and is expected to introduce Mick Byrne as a technical skills coach. Interestingly, ex-All Black outhalf Grant Fox has been added to the roster as a selector, and he’ll join Hansen and Foster on a three-man selection panel – a selection panel that includes neither defense coach McLean or skills coach Byrne.

If Rala Puts Out The Crashpads, And Deccie Picks The Team, What Does Mick Kearney Do?

The Mole has long felt that the position of manager in the Irish set-up – until recently held by Paul McNaughton, with Mick Kearney taking over just before the Six Nations – is underpowered and unclear, an afterthought. Blood and Guts Toland wrote a column earlier in the year that posed the question of what Declan Kidney’s job actually entailed: with Gert Smal coaching the forwards, Les Kiss taking charge of the defense and Kiss collaborating with Mark Tainton on attack, what did this leave Kidney to do of an average day?

The Dolphin man has never had the reputation as a brilliant technical coach, but rather that of a borderline-spooky man-manager, motivator and strategic thinker. The next person who takes on the job won’t have the same skill-set or personality, so will the coaching set-up [and not just the personnel involved] change as well?

Provincial Ballast

Declan Kidney and Ronan O'Gara in Munster colours: Kidney had two stints at the province, taking them to four HEC finals and winning two of them in his seven seasons in charge.

The last three years of Kidney’s tenure have soured The Mole on having a coach who was previously the head man at one of the provinces. Not only has Kidney made selections that a lot of people might see as Munster-leaning [O’Leary over anybody for the last two seasons; O’Callaghan over Tuohy in this year’s Six Nations, with the Ulsterman seemingly not even up for consideration; O’Mahony over Henry as a No7 in the same tournament, when the former has barely played the position and the latter has been playing there regularly for the last two seasons; the badly mis-firing Earls over the in-form Andrew Trimble in the build-up to the World Cup], it’s also a bit naive to dissociate him from the central contracts that have been given out recently as thank-yous to Donncha O’Callaghan [three years] and Denis Leamy [two years]. You’d want to be a fairly sheltered – or maybe blinkered – Irish rugby fan to think that the PCRG acts on its own accord with regards to contract allocation without serious input from the national coach.

The media coverage of his tenure has also been oddly unquestioning: journalists consistently seeking to defend the head coach to their readers, as though the average Irish rugby fan doesn’t have a clue about rugby or is a seething partisan rabble-rouser incapable of objectivity.

Eddie O'Sullivan shipped a huge amount of flak during his tenure as IRFU head coach. For the majority of that time, he was dealing from two provinces, with Munster in their pomp, Leinster talented but underpowered and Ulster in the middle of a serious slump. Kidney has significantly more resources at hand, with three provinces in good standing on a European level.

With that said, there is an obvious provincial split in the Irish fan base: Munster fans who refuse to see anything wrong with anything Kidney does [ever], and Leinster/Ulster fans who are all too willing to blame him for anything, even issues that are obviously out of control, or well-intentioned ideas that go t*ts-up. It’s a poisonous atmosphere. It was pretty obvious that a Munster-fascinated/leaning press were incredibly harsh on Eddie O’Sullivan during his tenure, blaming him for delivering Triple Crowns rather than Grand Slams and putting in a lot of personal criticism that they might have felt was warranted by his short-tempered dealings with them, but was petty, destructive and mostly just unprofessional.

While you wouldn’t want to see anything of this kind of personalized nonsense when it comes to Kidney, there’s been very little criticism of any kind of his selection, tactics or win-loss record. What there has been is a priceless about-face in doctrine, from the ‘our players have played more big knock-out matches in the Heineken Cup’  that preceded the RWC11 quarter-final against Wales to ‘the Heineken Cup is killing us at international level’  in the aftermath of another disappointing Six Nations – both of which are/were presented as immutable facts, both of which are wide open to question.

Foreign Head Coach

The current dissatisfaction with Kidney stems from the fact that since the turn of 2010, Irish results have been poor. Kidney took over in 2008 and had a couple of teething problems with a loss to the All Blacks and then a horrendous soup of a match [albeit a win] against Argentina in Croke Park in November, but his 2009 was absolutely outstanding: unbeaten for the entire calendar year, with a Grand Slam and a win over the world champion, Lions-beating Springboks.

Since then, his record has been seriously underwhelming, with three losses to Wales, two losses to Scotland, four losses to France [including three in 2011] and two losses to England. Simply put, the results haven’t been there, and the fault-lines in his coaching make-up are growing. People are looking for reasons why Ireland aren’t winning more games, and more and more focus is coming to bear on Kidney’s supposed weaknesses rather than his supposed strengths.

To those not from Munster, many of these fault-lines find their locus in his provincial background. Ulster and Connacht fans accuse him of wilfully overlooking their players for selection, while Leinster fans accuse him of a backwards gameplan.

The Mole has long felt ambivalent to the idea that it must be an Irishman that coaches Ireland; after all, of Kidney’s four major training field assistants during RWC11, how many were Irish? None. There was the South African Gert Smal, the Australians Alan Gaffney and Les Kiss, and the Englishman Mark Tainton. I’d prefer an Irish team that wins more matches and plays better rugby with a foreign coach than a team that loses half its matches and underperforms with an Irish figurehead coach.

The idea that we have to stick with the same organisational set-up as we have now is sclerotic thinking. There are other ways to get the job done.

Big Man On Campus

The 1997 Lions tour was an extremely important event in northern hemisphere rugby. As the first Lions tour of the professional era, it held the future of a much-loved but arguably out-dated institution in its hands, and the success of the tour [and not just in the test series, but in the quality and style of rugby they played throughout South Africa] guaranteed the future of the team, as well as notching a rare victory for the touring side in the southern hemisphere. It showed that a NH team [albeit one picked from the cream of four unions] could take on and beat a SH team on their own turf, and that a traditional tour which took in midweek provincial games as well as test matches could be both an on-pitch and off-pitch success.

Cotton, Telfer and McGeechan - one of the great management and coaching teams of the professional era in northern hemisphere rugby. McGeechan was the attacking guru at head coach, Telfer the force of nature as forward's coach and Cotton the steel fist in the velvet glove as tour manager. Maybe it only worked because of the specific personalities involved, or maybe it worked because there were three competent men working towards one goal – á la The Hydra.

The insight that the documentary Living With Lions provided to the rugby fan remains unsurpassed; especially revealing were the scenes which captured discussions between members of the management party. The Mole has long believed that the key to the success of the Lions on that tour was their management and coaching staff. That it worked so well was due both to the hierarchy inherent in the structure of Manager/Head Coach/Assistant Coach and the personalities involved: Fran Cotton, Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer.

The three men were all multiple Lions tourists as players [Telfer in 1966 and 1968, McGeechan in 1974 and 1977, Cotton in 1974, 1977 and 1980] and had a deep passion for the touring team, but their history of achievement in test rugby as players is more or less incidental. It was their personalities and their well-defined roles that made the working relationship what it was, rather than the fact that they had all been great players, or that they were all generally competent men.

Cotton, bluff and approachable, but hard-nosed and even domineering when duty called; McGeechan, enthusiastic, curious and quietly adventurous, a player’s coach; Telfer, teak-tough, demanding, blunt, the hardest task-master in the game. There’s no doubt that a touring team needs a slightly different emphasis in management than a regular international outfit, but The Mole finds it odd that this dramatically successful template has never really been adopted by another northern hemisphere union in terms of test management, and that the idea of a manager has become little more than an appendix.

Structurally Sound

It doesn’t have to be that way. Conor O’Shea is Harlequins’ director of rugby, with John Kingston his head coach and Collin Osbourne his skills coach. How exactly the roles are broken up is beyond my knowledge, but it looks like O’Shea deals with the media and largely shapes the approach of the club, while Kingston carries on the training-day work which is a coach’s job – coaching players. That sounds like something that could work at international level, doesn’t it? While communicating ideas persuasively and effectively is a large part of a coach’s job, to suggest that that ability will automatically transition between a small audience of expert players and an enormous audience of fans watching on television and reading in newspapers isn’t necessarily a valid expectation.

Brian Ashton struggled as the man in charge, but was God's gift as second-in-command. He's a rugby coach, not a national media manager.

Some people are great coaches, and some are great communicators; few are both. Brian Ashton has been renowned for a long time as a smashing coach, but the obligations of dealing with the media as English coach during RWC07 obviously weighed extremely heavily on him. Back when he was Jack Rowell’s assistant coach at Bath [1989-96] and Clive Woodward’s assistant coach at England [1998-2002], everything he touched turned to gold; however, in both his times as head honcho [for Ireland between 1996-98 and for England between 2006-08], he has come a cropper.

There are a number of ways to structure a coaching staff, and one of them might be a stronger manager who has an official say in selection [rather than just being a sounding board], or even a manager/director of rugby that is the head of the table and chooses his own head coach. That may sound unwieldy, but I think there’s a legitimate comparison to be made there between the current situation with Kidney and Les Kiss: Kiss oversees both attack and defense for Ireland … isn’t he the head coach in all but name, and Kidney the real manager of the team? Or more, to the point, shouldn’t that be the relationship?

4 thoughts on “SARU Turns Politics Down A Notch And Focuses On Rugby Success

  1. Good stuff as always Mole! Not only have SARU put together what you rightly say looks like a very good coaching ticket, evidence from the Super 15 so far this year suggests that they also have players coming through to replace the retired WC winners of Smit, Matfield, du Preez etc. and may be a force again sooner than some people may have thought. The Stormers have been the surprise package in the tournament so far (unbeaten until last weekend when they lost 31-24 to the Crusaders in Christchurch) and a few of their younger players have been particularly eye catching. Eben Etzebeth (20) is a big, ball carrying second row that looks like the heir apparent to big Vic – he comes in the standard SAFA second row dimensions (6’8, 18 stone) which is handy too! Juan De Jongh (24) already has ten caps for the Boks but on the basis of his play this year looks like he’s taken his game to the next level and may be ready to nail down a berth in the Springbok midfield. Will be interesting to see their squad for “The Rugby Championship’ (the say what you see title they’ve given to the Tri Nations plus Argies).

  2. Only got around to reading this now. Super stuff as always. I think England have shown the benefit of a clear management/coaching structure this season, in the way that you’ve discussed. Lancaster in charge of creating the team’s image in the media, Rowntree takes care of the pack and Farrell as the ‘head coach’ (admittedly coaching shite rugby). Now that Farrell isn’t being released, Lancaster recognises the need to bring in a replacement in Wayne Smith. Would hopefully make the improvements England need to make in terms of attack…

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