SA Rugby needs practical solutions

SA Rugby is crying out for men of action who can provide practical and sustainable solutions to its many problems, writes JON CARDINELLI.

‘South African rugby is in crisis’.  So many people have spoken these words in the wake of the Springboks’ humiliating 57-15 loss to the All Blacks at Kings Park on 8 October.

Analysts, commentators, and even current players and coaches have highlighted the flaws in the South African rugby system and have called for an intervention.

Almost ever rugby person with a voice or a platform has recognised the need for profound and immediate change. Judging by the comments made by various parties over the past few weeks, South African rugby is not short of answers. As a community, we know where we need to go.

Yet, it’s the questions of ‘how’ and ‘who’ that continue to confound. More specifically, how is South African Rugby going to rewire a machine that is currently programmed to serve 14 unions rather than one national team? And who, exactly, is going to take it upon themselves to push the button, to insist that the proverbial turkeys vote for Christmas?

I’ve had this same conversation with many players, coaches and administrators. Everyone agrees that change is needed. However, while all are quick to point out the obvious, not one person has come forward with practical or sustainable solutions to South African rugby’s problems.

It’s a sad indictment when one considers that it’s actually the job of certain individuals to formulate strategies and solutions, to ensure that SA Rugby moves towards a more professional model sooner rather than later. Is there no one at SA Rugby that is smart enough to find a solution? And is there no one in that organisation who is strong enough to enforce it?

A South African coaching indaba will be held in Cape Town in the coming week. When the idea was first put forward, there was a positive reaction.

When it was subsequently announced that the respected coach and former player Brendan Venter would facilitate the two-day event, there was a swell of optimism. Many felt that maybe, just maybe, this could be the catalyst that sparks a significant change in the way the game is coached and governed in South Africa.

One would hope that the aim of this indaba is to find practical solutions. One would hope that those who attend don’t waste two days pondering the answers to the questions, as the answers are plain for all to see.

One would hope that a blueprint is formulated and someone takes it upon themselves to enforce a systematic change that will benefit South African rugby in the short and long term.

That said, it’s hard to remain optimistic when you hear that certain coaches – important coaches – haven’t even been invited to the indaba. Furthermore, some of those who have been invited aren’t keen to share their ideas.

Nick Mallett, Heyneke Meyer and André Markgraaff are revered in rugby circles. Mallett’s Boks won 17 Tests in succession in the late 1990s. Mallett then went on to enjoy success while coaching in Europe.

Meyer was responsible for the Bulls’ rise in the early 2000s, and was still at the helm when they became the most successful South African Super Rugby franchise in history. Many coaches in this country have since adopted some of Meyer’s methods.

How can SA Rugby believe that these men have nothing to offer, that they cannot help to lift the sport out its current quagmire?

Venter himself has done some wonderful things with the teams he’s coached in South Africa and abroad. Yet, what can he really achieve in two days at a once-off coaching indaba, and will the issues related to the South African rugby structures, as well as the self-serving 14 unions, really be addressed?

Will the coaches who actually attend the indaba have the interests of their own franchises or those of the national team at heart? This is an important question. One can understand why they might feel reluctant to share their ideas. Coaches are employed by the unions, and are obligated to obtain results for those unions. There’s no good professional reason for them to share their intellectual property, to help the Boks or any other South African side.

But what if there were a restructure to South African rugby that ensured that everything was geared towards helping the national team excel? What if the coaches of the respective franchises and provinces were not judged solely on results, but also on what they contributed to the national team?

The New Zealand Rugby Union instructs the franchises and provinces to serve the All Blacks in this manner. And as the results show, there are benefits for the franchises as well as the national side. New Zealand teams have won 14 out of a possible 21 Super Rugby titles.

Recently, Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen pointed out that all the New Zealand teams play a particular style of rugby. There is consistency across the Kiwi franchises, as well as a drive to develop certain areas of the game according to the modern trends. By the time players reach Test level, they have all the skills they need to be a success. Vermeulen argued that South Africa’s franchises need to come to a similar agreement. There needs to be push to develop skills at age group and Super Rugby level with the national side in mind.

Some might say that this will require a significant buy-in from the respective coaches. Some may lament the arrogance of certain coaches who will always feel that their way is the right way, and that they have the right to operate in a vacuum.

Of course, if SA Rugby were to take that power away from the coaches, we may start to see more consistency across the board. If SA Rugby were to insist that every team adhered to certain standards and that every team developed certain skills, it would make a world of difference to the national side.

But again, we come back to the question of leadership at administration level. Who has the power to make such decisions at SA Rugby; who has the strength to drag South African rugby out of the amateur era and into the future?

One would hope that South Africa’s leaders stand up over the coming months and make decisions with the national team in mind. If not, the Boks will continue to drop down the World Rugby rankings, and deeper into the realm of the irrelevant and mediocre.

It's time for the men who proclaim to have South African rugby's best interests at heart to take action.

Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images

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Jon Cardinelli