No change without honesty

The Springboks’ mediocre return at the World Cup showed why the South African rugby system isn’t working and why change is needed at Super Rugby and national levels, writes JON CARDINELLI.

South African rugby is in trouble. The issues limiting the success of the franchises as well as the Springboks are many and profound.

There’s been an outcry in the wake of the Boks’ mediocre finish at the 2015 World Cup, a result that rounded off a decidedly mediocre year for South African rugby. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe that 2016 will be any different, or that the Boks will be an all-conquering force by the next global tournament in 2019.

South African teams can compete against the best sides in the world, but evidently they cannot win consistently over the course of big tournaments or edge the elite teams in the knockout stage. It’s not good enough.

The solution that’s been offered up by many fans and commentators is the figurative crucifixion of Heyneke Meyer. The Bok coach has to accept at least some of the blame for the results at the World Cup, and indeed the disappointing Test results over the past 12 months.

And yet Saru is set to retain Meyer for another four years. The powers that be feel that they made a mistake when they axed Jake White after the 2007 World Cup. They’re tired of starting from scratch at the beginning of each four-year cycle. They want to build a team and system that is the envy of the rugby world.

If that is the aim, then Saru would do well to review all of its current structures. Hard questions need to be asked. Are the franchises working to serve the national team? Are they managing players to peak both mentally and physically at the business end of the Test season? Are the players being equipped with the necessary skills to be a success on the Test stage?

The answers to these questions have been plain to see over the course of the 2015 season. Four South African sides failed to progress to the Super Rugby play-offs. Despite enjoying home advantage in their qualifying play-off, the Stormers lost to the Brumbies by 20 points. The Cape side was outplayed, to an embarrassing degree, by a better coached and more skilled Brumbies outfit.

The final weekend of the 2015 World Cup also provided some answers to these uncomfortable questions. The Boks battled to a 24-13 win against an Argentina side missing nine players who featured in the preceding semi-final against Australia. In the World Cup final, the All Blacks and the Wallabies put on a dazzling display. While the teams showed respect for the basics and kicked regularly, their superior skills allowed them to take risks and complete some breathtaking attacking feats.

The post-match press conference at Twickenham on Saturday was as much a lesson as the game itself. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen went out of his way to praise a New Zealand system that puts the national team first.

He thanked the respective franchises for their contributions to the world title success. If not for that system, the All Blacks would not lead the way in areas such as the lineout, tactical kicking and finishing. They certainly wouldn’t have what it takes to peak at the end of a long and taxing rugby year.

Richie McCaw then revealed that the All Blacks are a happy team. He said the side had made a mental shift between 2012 and 2015, and that the string of positive results allowed them to travel to the World Cup with more conviction than hope that the title was theirs for the taking. At the same time, they knew that a loss wouldn’t equate to disaster. It’s that sort of knowledge that enabled them to play with joy and freedom.

Contrast all of that to what we currently see in South African rugby, and what we saw from the Boks at the 2015 World Cup. The Boks were fighting for survival in every contest. There was desperation and determination, but very little joy in the way they played. Just as there is more to living than only surviving, there is more to rugby than doing the bare minimum to remain in the contests and hope that the odd bounce of the ball or a refereeing decision goes your way.

The big question in the wake of the World Cup is whether Meyer can take this team forward. It’s a question that should be asked of any potential candidate who will find himself at the mercy of the same backward South African system.

That said, Meyer should also be honest in the appraisal of his management team’s contributions at the World Cup tournament. If Meyer is to continue, he will need to make some tough and necessary decisions. While the overall system needs to change, the Bok management team could also do with an injection of fresh ideas as well as a couple of voices willing to challenge the status quo and create an environment of excellence.

Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli