A new management role could have far-reaching benefits as SA Rugby moves towards ensuring that the national team are settled and supported in every area of their lives, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Ever endured a bad day at the office due to a personal issue or some trouble at home? For most, it’s a question that will almost certainly return a natural response of ‘yes, of course’.
Yet, in a rugby-mad country such as South Africa, where our Springboks in particular are put on a pedestal, there does appear to be an unforgiving element of hero worship. When a player or a team underperforms on a Saturday, they often and inevitably face a barrage of merciless condemnation, often directed through a stream of social media platforms that have extended the reach of the quintessential armchair critic.
It is the cut-throat nature of professional sport, sure, but it does lead to an almost cult-like following where players are viewed as the property of the public, rather than as people with lives beyond the game. In this context, it was very interesting to take note of a new role that has been created for the Springboks in this World Cup year, with Eugene Henning – the CEO of MyPlayers – appointed to look after player affairs and welfare.
‘Professional players face multiple demands,’ Bok coach Rassie Erasmus explained. ‘The coaches can manage the playing and training workloads, but we need to look after the off-field workload as well …
‘We have to take into consideration a host of other important activities that happen in the background, such as medical and conditioning preparation, the various daily planning and preparation sessions, media, PR and commercial engagements. On top of that, we need to take into account that they actually have their own personal and family affairs to look after at the same time.’
There will be some cynics who might suggest that’s all mumbo-jumbo, but could this new job creation in fact prove to be a masterstroke? In 2017, I recall conducting an interview with former Lions and Bok centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg. Having just lost his mother to cancer, he revealed how he had initially sought to hide certain feelings from his teammates, but found himself overcome with emotions on the way to training one day.
‘I went and parked in the corner of Ellis Park and just cried,’ he admitted. Just a few weeks later, Janse van Rensburg endured another harrowing experience when he and his loved ones were held at gunpoint in an armed robbery. When considering these personal experiences, you can only wonder how he ever managed to keep his focus on on-field matters.
Janse van Rensburg’s story is a poignant one, but it should also serve as a reminder that there is often more nuance and depth to our sportsmen than meets the eye during an 80-minute performance each weekend. Back in 2014, for example, Jean Deysel was involved in an incident where he received a red card for lashing out at an opponent.
It was an act that seemed totally out of character for the affable flanker, but in private circles, it was understood that he had been dealing with some difficult news with regards to a loved one. Sports stars are people too, and it’s the reason why a club such as Saracens in England have fostered such success by establishing a family culture with the aim of supporting players, both on and off the field.
Similarly, Johan Ackermann became known as a father figure for many players during his time at the Lions, and the term ‘brotherhood’ was often referenced when seeking to explain the success that the Johannesburg-based side enjoyed.
The examples can go both ways. When Jake White was coaching at the Sharks, and John Mitchell at the Lions, there were periods when it was alleged that they had ‘lost the change room’. The poor results on the field also reflected as much.
By creating a position for player management and welfare, SA Rugby is taking a significant step towards ensuring that the Springbok team is happy, settled and supported in every area of their lives. The aim is for them to be focused, fresh and ready when the World Cup rolls around. That can only be a good thing.
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