Matt Proudfoot has reflected on how Rassie Erasmus’ arrival as Bok coach provided ‘clarity in terms of how the team should play to their strengths’.
Proudfoot smiles when he’s asked to reflect on his rugby roots. While he was born in Klerksdorp and attended high school in Potchefstroom, his rugby education effectively began at his Scottish grandfather’s house in the early 1980s.
The TV in the living room was a window on to another world. Proudfoot followed the Springbok tours to far-flung countries like New Zealand with interest. The Five Nations Championship showcased the best northern-hemisphere players of the time, as well as the age-old rivalries between the Home Nations.
Commentator Bill McLaren narrated these battles in his inimitable style, while Proudfoot’s grandfather extolled the virtues of the Scotland side. It’s little wonder that Proudfoot developed a burning desire to wear the Scotland jersey and to compete in the world’s oldest international tournament.
Five years after playing in his final Test for Scotland in 2003, he took up a position at Western Province as the forwards coach under new director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. In 2016, he was recruited to coach the Springbok pack, and retained in 2018 after Allister Coetzee and other coaches got the axe.
Proudfoot’s coaching journey climaxed when the Boks won the 2019 World Cup. Weeks later, the former Scotland prop joined the England coaching team and contributed to a side that won the 2020 Six Nations as well as the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup.
‘To go back and coach in a competition that I had been part of as a player was very special,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine in a wide-ranging Zoom interview. ‘You’ve played for Scotland, and now you’re coaching the old enemy. You’re forced to see everything from a different perspective. That balance has been good for me as a person and as a coach.’
Some South African fans might view England as ‘the old enemy’, given the history between the two nations in a 115-year-old rugby rivalry. The last time these sides clashed was in the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama. The Bok forwards destroyed their English counterparts to lay the platform for a 32-12 triumph.
Erasmus stepped down after that tournament, but assured fans and stakeholders that he would remain involved as South Africa’s director of rugby. Jacques Nienaber was promoted to the position of head coach, while much of the coaching staff was retained.
Proudfoot, one of the longest serving coaches in the set-up – and indeed one of the most influential, given the way the final played out – decided to accept a new challenge with England.
So much has changed since that fateful night in Yokohama. The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the game to its core. Proudfoot himself contracted the virus and was forced to self-isolate in early January.
He has no regrets, though, about his decision to walk away at the end of the 2019 World Cup. If anything, he views the move as a necessary one in the context of a longer coaching journey.
‘The worst thing I could have done was to stay on,’ he says. ‘I had an opportunity to add value over a period of four years. Did the team need me to stay on, or was it time for a new voice?
‘There’s great continuity with Rassie, Jacques and others still in the mix. The addition of Deon Davids [forwards coach] and [scrum coach] Daan Human will help to shape a new identity. They are in good hands.
‘The other reason I decided to move on is down to my coaching ambitions,’ he explains. ‘I’ve been an assistant coach for a long time. I want to become a head coach sooner rather than later.
‘I applied for the Cheetahs head coach position in 2019 and I didn’t get it. So I thought, what do I need to do to grow and realise my dream? I had spent seven seasons as the Stormers assistant coach and four as the Bok assistant coach. I need to go somewhere where I could find a new approach and make myself better.
‘Rassie and Jacques went to Munster in 2016 and 2017,’ he points out. ‘They grew as coaches and people during that period. They picked up new strategies. So, in a sense, I’ve followed that same formula.
‘When the opportunity to work with England came along, I knew they would be very competitive and I knew that I would have the chance to learn from a different management team and a different player group. So I put myself in a position to grow.’
Nobody will forget what transpired in that 2019 World Cup final, though. Beast Mtawarira hammered into opposite number Kyle Sinckler at the very first scrum. When Sinckler left the field after copping a blow to the head in open play, Mtawarira went after his replacement, Dan Cole, at the next set-piece.
The Boks forced England to concede penalties and Handre Pollard slotted several kicks to put South Africa into a dominant position.
‘I was pleased for the guys and the way things worked out,’ Proudfoot says. Many of the players who peaked in 2019 were part of a South African side that struggled in 2016 and 2017. That story certainly had a happy ending.
‘There’s a sense of starting again after every World Cup cycle. It was the same after 2015. You could see the potential in the players. In terms of how to access that potential … That was a tough one.
‘At the end of 2017, I felt I still had something to offer in the Bok set-up. Rassie came in and put a very good plan in place. He provided clarity in terms of how the team should play to their strengths. All of sudden, you could see the doubt and anxiety falling away. The players started to regain their confidence.’
Proudfoot remembers how hard he had to work to gain the trust of Erasmus and others in the management team.
‘Rassie has a very distinctive style of coaching. He enjoys working with close groups of people. It’s all about making sure those small deviations in thought aren’t there.
‘I enjoyed that he gave me a lot of autonomy. He never sat looking over my shoulder. When I needed help, I went to him. There was an onus on me to show that I still could add value to the environment.’
The Boks blew hot and cold in 2018. In 2019, however, they won the Rugby Championship for the first time in 10 years. They travelled to the World Cup in Japan with momentum. By the playoffs, the players were at their physical and mental peak.
‘The mental aspect is absolutely crucial,’ Proudfoot says. ‘We had a clear plan at the scrum and that didn’t change much from game for game. Our mentality was to go for it at every maul and scrum – forcing our style on to the opposition.
‘I drove that throughout the 2019 Rugby Championship. By the time we got to the World Cup pool game against Italy, the players were ready to take everything away from us as coaches. It was a case of them saying, “We’ve got this”.
‘From there, we just had to keep pushing them and ensure that they stayed on course. After that game against Italy, I got the feeling that we could go all the way.’
It was at the World Cup that Proudfoot, who had worked with many of the players at the Stormers as well as the Boks over a lengthy period, witnessed several individual transformations.
‘So many of them had been on a journey of discovery. I sat with Pieter-Steph du Toit and reflected on his switch from lock to blindside flank, and how he was starting to realise his potential. Beast was injured and had to work his way back into the starting team. I really felt for Bongi Mbonambi, who went through a lot with his emergency appendectomy [in early 2018] to get his chance.
‘I had a long history and connection with these players. I just tried to empower them. I found their “whys” and just kept feeding those.
‘You can speak to Duane Vermeulen in one word, and he will nod and do what needs to be done. You don’t even have to speak to Pieter-Steph, you just have to look at him and he will understand what’s required. You need to have a close relationship with the forwards – with the individuals as well as the group .’
Which begs the question, how did the England players respond to his appointment in 2020? What was the mood like when Proudfoot – one of the architects of England’s demise in the 2019 World Cup final – reported for duty at the first England camp?
Proudfoot says that it was never an issue.
‘They’re very intelligent players. Maro Itoje is one of the first guys I spoke to. I enjoyed his approach, which was “What can you teach me? What can you add to my game?”
‘That relationship was formed very quickly. Now it’s about building up those relationships over the next few years.’
England have claimed some important results since Eddie Jones took the reins in 2016. They have restored their reputation as one of the most physical teams in Test rugby. How can Proudfoot add to that reputation?
‘Eddie is a very forensic coach. He’s similar to Rassie in that way. Nothing is left to chance.
‘To be part of a different cycle and see where you can add value, that’s really rewarding. I’ve got to say, this England system is really challenging, because you’ve got to bring everything you have every single day. That’s what I’m enjoying.
‘Steve Borthwick [former England forwards coach] is probably one of the most formidable coaches I’ve coached against. So it’s more about taking what was in place before I arrived and driving that mindset of being a dominant pack. In a match, there’s always going to be one area that’s going to be the pressure point. It’s about finding that pressure point in each game situation and exploiting it.’
Earlier this year, there was speculation that Proudfoot might form part of the British & Irish Lions coaching team tasked with plotting South Africa’s demise in July and August. Proudfoot insisted that he would not be involved; but he will be when the Boks face England at Twickenham in November.
‘That will be an interesting one,’ he admits. ‘I will probably start thinking about the emotion around it when the Boks arrive in the buildup to the game.
‘It should be a fantastic Test match. People will talk about that clash in the same way they spoke about the World Cup final. We’ll be back in that moment once more.
‘It will be good for rugby in the sense that it will be another good story. Hopefully all the fans will be back to see it. The game needs more stories like this at the moment. I’m looking forward to it.’
Aren’t we all.