By Tafi Mhaka
“You spend the week before each game building the momentum of the group. As you do that, you transfer the responsibility from the coaches to the players but then an hour before the game, there is a fella up the front telling them what to do. I realised it just didn’t fit,” says Graham Henry, former New Zealand Rugby World Cup-winning coach, on why he gave up on giving pep talks, a favourite pre-game ritual of his for thirty years.
A legendary coach does not only win major trophies or set records, he stamps his mark on the game through the combination of a great work ethic, shrewd planning and magnificent management skills. This force of character is something most rugby fans will remember long after a coach has retired and another superb coach has come along and won a bag of trophies and set fresh records.
Sometimes the ability of a coach to man-manage professional players and get the best out of them is primarily what it takes to achieve results of the highest standard, as the best tacticians rarely make for the best managers in the history of sport. This is not an indictment on the ability of Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, his results so far, or the wonderful results he may garner in future, hopefully, but it does look as if he will not achieve any of the aforementioned accolades. The man born in Grahamstown does not appear set for greatness; not in this era-defining period of rugby. This is the man who spent the better part of last Wednesday and Thursday attending an Indaba for reasons that are not clear.
The man is knee deep in the proverbial water fishing for new ideas. That is right: the man tasked with leading the Springboks does not have the confidence to be his own man. Where will the buck stop if the Indaba held at his behest yields nothing but endless talk about more talks and getting things right and little else by way of much-improved performances and spirited play in England and Wales later this year? Will Coach Coetzee blame the strategy, or lack thereof, put together by all and sundry at the Indaba? Will he promptly call for another Indaba after another defeat?
The man needs help, apparently, as SA Rugby attested to, in a statement, Coetzee would like to discuss “current playing trends across a wide range of areas of game play, and seek alignment within SA Rugby on ways to ensure rugby excellence and continuous improvement to remain a top rugby-playing nation”. Dear me: What is Coetzee paid for? For all the talk about the unions not working in support of the Springboks, at least the coaches there have set targets to meet or competitions to win. They have work to do. All things being equal the day-to-day runnings of SA Rugby must include overseeing the development of rugby across all local, provincial and national structures. Does it take a two-day Indaba held in the upmarket suburb of Newlands in Cape Town to identify that the basics of rugby must be taught to South African players?
I would like to see Coach Coetzee take sole responsibility for the successes or failures of the Springbok team. Should he be the man to take the Springboks forward surely the results and standard of play from the Springboks will speak for themselves in the long run? Should he not be the man, he should step back from the position immediately. Yes, I know Coetzee cannot do everything by himself. Nor is he to blame for all the woes the Springbok face. But he just does not seem to be the man with the first-rate ideas that will transform South African rugby.
Other rugby experts, it seems, do.
“We must see how we can get confidence back in South African rugby – I think that’s the most important thing” said Former Bok assistant coach and current Western Province director of rugby, Gert Smal. I agree with his assessment. Being confident plays a big part in playing winning rugby. Should Coetzee not have confidence in spades, will the players not sense his tenuous position and feel less inclined to follow through on his game plans or become less inspired to lay their lives down for him on the field of play? Will the players not lose confidence in their abilities as well?
And, while there is talk of improving the basic skill sets of South Africa along the lines of New Zealand, there is also talk of stemming the flow of young South African players opting to play abroad at the same time. But hold on: Just who is interested in these supposedly highly unskilled South African players? “If we talk about aerial skills, then all the players from all the franchises must be able to have good aerial skills. If you talk about kicks execution, then they all should have that,” Coetzee said. Excuse me, but: What exactly is happening here? Coaching basic rugby skills is nothing new. Nor is making sure players are super fit for matches. So will there be an Indaba on conditioning as well? Yes, says Coetzee.
South Africa has a great pool of players to choose from at the moment. But how will the Springboks kick start a resurgence if Coach Coetzee is reluctant to analyse his and his staff’s collective performance? Can he honestly say he has done his very best and this is all he can give us: plenty of excuses and vague plans for the future? How would he rate his impact on the Springbok squad thus far? Would he give himself say, a four out of ten? Plus where on earth is the change or improvement he promised to usher in?
“One area we can evolve is the speed at which will do things and the big thing about evolving your game is having the right personnel.
“It’s not something you’ll see overnight – the game is tough at the top – but if you have the right people and they buy into the plan, then I think we can compete.”
The plan, he said? Who has seen it yet? The reasons behind the Indaba and all manner of opinions being reported in the media is the glaring dearth of a definitive blueprint mapping the way forward from Coetzee himself. He has been quick to deflect attention from himself to the players, as he implores the rest of the rugby fraternity to help him. This Indaba business smacks of a grand plan for Coetzee (and others perhaps in the rugby establishment, whose plans for SA Rugby have been found to be lacking in substance) to avoid taking responsibility for the shortcomings of the senior national team. “There will be Indabas and more time to sit around on various issues,” Coetzee said.
While you are at it there, if you have a bit of time to spare, can you remember to design a number of grand match-winning plans for the tour of England, Wales and Italy? This is fairly clear to do. It does not require an Indaba. A collective let’s-get-together-and-discuss-this mentality at the coaching level never bodes well in competitive sports, I gather. Yes, rugby is a team sport, but men of great character and mental fortitude should step forward to lead a team on and off the field of play.
Seeing as Coetzee is the very person who called for an Indaba or the Indaba system that is evolving before our eyes, he may lack that winning instinct you might have sensed had you met a Rod Macqueen or or Bob Dwyer in person in the past. Coetzee just has not created the impression he has plans to bring the Webb Ellis Cup back home in 2019.
No, he has not.
This idea that all that matters is the system, is faulty in itself. The coach matters as well in the bigger scheme of things here. So Coetzee might want to go easy on the talk shops and strap his boots up. He has plenty of work to do before the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.