Rugby has been the casualty in the battle between Western Province’s professional and amateur arms, writes GAVIN RICH.
The controversy which was headlined by the Paul Treu saga and which has wracked Western Province rugby needs to be seen in a wider context that dates back to when Rassie Erasmus took his leave of the union in early-2012.
It probably goes back long before that, long before the time of even the current Springbok coach’s predecessor in what was essentially the WP director of rugby position, Nick Mallett.
According to Erasmus, Mallett had a particularly ominous message for him when he arrived in Cape Town in 2007.
‘Nick wished me luck and said I would need it. I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I do now,’ Erasmus told me shortly after his exit. ‘If you want to be the Manchester United of rugby you have to have everyone pulling in the same direction.’
That point is important. The day after the Stormers started their 2019 Super Rugby campaign with an abjectly disappointing defeat at Loftus, I received a text from someone who has been intimately involved with the Stormers’ fortunes.
‘Saturday was most sad. Nothing to do with finance. All major provinces are cash-strapped. But if you are divided in all aspects off the field, it will permeate on to the field.’
It was that understanding that prevented those who have been following rugby in the Western Cape closely over a long period from joining those laying all the blame for any failings on coach Robbie Fleck.
The Stormers’ problems go much deeper than the identity of the coach, and to outline why that is we should again cue in Erasmus, who listed ‘interference from elected officials and the different agendas’ as the chief reason for his departure.
‘I told my fellow coaches I had resigned in the hope the interference would stop and they would then be allowed to get on with what they are employed to do, which is to coach winning rugby. I told them that even if we did everything right from the coaching side we were never going to progress until all the other stuff away from the field was sorted out.’
Pertinently, in reference to what is currently happening at WP, Erasmus was concerned about the way elected officials had to grandstand to interest groups to retain their positions.
‘I just don’t think coaching appointments should be made on rugby coaching ability alone when the job entails a lot more political stuff than rugby stuff. It’s becoming more and more that way and it is particularly tough in the year there is a WP election.’
Erasmus felt that the politics between individuals directly undermined what could be considered the greater good of WP rugby.
‘I sometimes got the impression there were officials who wanted us to lose as it would suit their agenda,’ he said.
Some would contend that if mediocrity will keep elected officials in their jobs, they will be content with mediocrity. It is why some innovative, forward thinking but inherently risky suggestions made by people in the professional arm have been thwarted by elected officials and their committees.
A good example came in 2015 when then president Thelo Wakefield overruled director of rugby Gert Smal’s request to install John Mitchell as Stormers coach. But to create context we need to go back to what happened immediately after Erasmus’ departure.
Erasmus got his wish for his fellow coaches to be backed when Allister Coetzee, who had served as head coach under Erasmus’ direction, was granted a three-year extension a whole season before his contract was up for renewal.
This unprecedented move, announced days after the Erasmus interview, was driven by a belated recognition that the inkommer, as Erasmus was termed by some disaffected elected officials, had actually turned WP rugby around. Before Erasmus arrived, the Stormers had appeared in only two Super Rugby semi-finals, but by the end of 2011 they’d made a habit of finishing in the top two on the log. The season after Erasmus’ departure, in 2012, Coetzee took the Stormers to top spot, but they were blown out by the Sharks in their Newlands semi-final. The critics turned on a team that had become too defence-orientated.
It is easy to see why that was the case. Erasmus’ defence coach, the excellent Jacques Nienaber, continued in his role. But the rest of the coaches in the group, which included Fleck, lacked the experience to carry on the Erasmus plan to its fruition. In other words, to evolve the Stormers into a complete team.
The upshot of that was that by 2014 the Stormers were in crisis. Instead of sacking Coetzee, Wakefield demoted him by appointing Gert Smal above him as director of rugby.
Wakefield told me Smal would be in charge of all recruitment – players and coaches. Smal, a former WP player and coach, had a lot of power when he returned to Newlands.
But the president and director fell out after Wakefield vetoed the Mitchell appointment. The director of rugby position is where the buck is supposed to stop when it comes to performance, but the events of 2015 conspired against that being the case. Smal, who had initially pulled off a major coup by securing Eddie Jones before England did, wanted the fresh ideas an overseas coach would bring. The Mitchell deal was almost done when Wakefield intervened. By then it was mid-December, and a coach had to be appointed.
Fleck lacked head coaching experience, but he was seen as the best option. He was installed as an ‘interim coach’. Smal still planned to search overseas for a head coach.
But that never happened, for a few reasons – one of which was that there wasn’t anyone in Mitchell or Jones’ league available. Another was that Smal was systematically disempowered after being publicly humiliated by Wakefield’s interference to the point where the contracting was eventually done by a subcommittee. The third reason was that Fleck did fairly well in his first year.
When you appoint someone with little head coaching experience, you are surely buying into a process rather than demanding instant success. Fleck’s team faced only Australian teams in the overseas component of Super Rugby league play in 2016, and the Stormers comfortably won their conference. The focus on Fleck became more critical when the Chiefs scored 60 points in the Newlands quarter-final, but the excuse that the Stormers were disadvantaged by not having played New Zealand opposition during the season was a valid one.
Half a year after the quarter-final humiliation at the hands of the Chiefs, the Stormers beat them in a thriller at Newlands. Injuries conspired against the Stormers after a dream start that saw them win their first six games, but they still comfortably won their conference before going down to the Chiefs in a close playoff game that could have gone either way.
Last year was the only one under Fleck where the season could be regarded as a disaster, where he didn’t win the conference and make the playoffs. And if you look at the injuries – the hugely influential Eben Etzebeth has actually played more for the Boks than the Stormers – it may have been understandable. The view of Fleck as a serial failure is wrong.
The argument that the Stormers should be aiming much higher does have validity. Fleck will tell you he would have liked to have served an apprenticeship under Mitchell. The former Bulls coach might well have got fed up with the interference at the Stormers and left, but he would probably have stayed long enough to take them quite far down the road to where they need to be while also completing the same nurturing role with Fleck that he did with Johan Ackermann.
Fleck is in the final season of his four-year plan and this is the year he always said would be a no-excuses one. But a new bunch of elected officials have been voted in, headed by president Zelt Marais, and it has ushered in a fresh set of challenges that have some yearning for Wakefield.
Marais didn’t help himself with his pre-election promises of pay cuts and other changes. He did issue belated denials of some of the things that made media headlines. But he was offered the chance to respond by the Sunday newspaper that first ran the story about Treu being in line for Smal’s job and didn’t. Why not? Why did he wait until he suffered a defeat in a boardroom battle for control of the professional arm of the union before suddenly making denials?
But this is all moot. Even if Marais didn’t intend for Treu to take over the directorship, the point is, the players want it to be taken off the table even as the remotest possibility.
Unfortunately, the whole Treu saga was mired in identity politics from the outset. It shouldn’t be, although it’s easy to understand why this has been the case. There aren’t enough black coaches coming through in South Africa.
Treu does have potential as a coach. He has a reputation for having an astute rugby brain. But if you canvas those who have worked with him or played for him, and know the reasons SA Rugby didn’t renew his contract with the Blitzboks, what is also apparent, is his man management is abysmal and he burns bridges wherever he goes.
Possessing an astute rugby brain isn’t enough if you don’t get those other important aspects of coaching right. Treu might like to see himself as an eagle that is prepared to soar alone while pigeons flock together, but in the rugby environment the leaders have to be part of the pigeon flock to some extent or they are lost.
Mitchell has largely rectified his previous shortcomings by employing a life coach. The best advice to Treu would be to take some time off from the game and do the same. Regardless of whether he heeds that advice, the bottom line is he is a non-starter with the current group of Stormers players.
Those who argue that the players should be ignored and Treu foisted on them don’t understand one of the realities of modern professional rugby. Yes, player power can sometimes go too far but in this instance we are referring to a group of players who are deciding where to take their careers from here. Contrary to popular belief, many top players would like to stay on because the series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021 is a carrot.
There are only 12 players in the current squad who are contracted past this year, and it is natural for those coming off contract to want to know if the culture at WP will be conducive to achieving success. That is why they demanded at a meeting with chief executive Paul Zacks, Marais and other administrators/officials that an exit strategy be prepared for Treu.
And they also want to know what role the exco, made up of people elected out of club rugby and thus relying on populous appeal for survival, will play in the administration of professional rugby in the future.
Those who have been there will tell you that uncertainty will always impact on performance in some way. The view of Fleck expressed by a senior player during conversation recently, though, sums up one of the main issues at the union. According to this player, Fleck’s greatest asset is the experience he has of the often toxic environment after being a WP player and coach. That imbues him with the ability to manage upwards and act as a buffer between the administration and themselves.
Fleck will tell you that he regards shielding the players from pressure as one of his main tasks as coach. When Smal was courting Jones and Mitchell, he promised them he would act as their buffer from the officials.
In summation, it is a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation and the continued division explains why WP and the Stormers have never kicked on to any kind of sustained success. As Erasmus said in 2012, there just isn’t enough focus on rugby.
– This feature first appeared in the April 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.