Quality coaching still matters

England’s success under Eddie Jones proves that Test teams are more than just the product of a national system. South African rugby would do well to take note, writes JON CARDINELLI​.

Fourteen months ago, England rugby was in crisis. The national team blundered its way through the pool stages of the 2015 World Cup. Chris Robshaw and company became the first host side in history not to qualify for the playoffs of its own global tournament.

The British press was apoplectic. Stuart Lancaster, a popular man in the boardroom and in the pressroom, had to go. His status as a nice guy could no longer disguise the fact that he was not up to the task of taking England forward.

That fact has been reiterated by England’s results in 2016. Jones has brought about a culture change that has revived England’s reputation as one of the meanest and most physical teams in world rugby. Jones has developed England’s existing strengths and has resisted the temptation to replicate what the All Blacks have done in recent years.

Fourteen months on, and England have equalled their best-ever winning streak (14). They’ve won 13 out of 13 under Jones, a record that’s included a Grand Slam triumph, four straight wins over Australia, and a first victory against South Africa in 10 years.

It’s no secret that England boast a central contracting system similar to that of the All Blacks. They have access to training facilities that are the envy of the rugby world. However, one should not underestimate the influence of the coaching staff on the team’s results. Indeed, Lancaster’s England enjoyed the same advantages, but didn’t enjoy nearly as much on-field success.

So, what is the point? A good system will ensure that elite players are conditioned and managed with the national team in mind. But in the end, it is the national coaches who need to develop a winning culture and battle plan.

By contrast, South African rugby structures are largely amateur. Every franchise operates independently of the other, and not enough is done to manage elite players ahead of the Test season. It should come as no surprise that in the wake of a horrific year – that’s witnessed five of the six franchises failing to qualify for the Super Rugby semi-finals and the Springboks slumping to eight defeats in 12 Tests –  everybody and their dog is demanding a change to the national system.

While a profound change is long overdue, the powers that be must not overlook the dire quality of the national side’s performances and how those displays are linked to the abilities of the current coaching staff. The Boks lost to a 14-man Ireland side at home. They leaked 57 points against the All Blacks at home. On the recent tour to Europe, the players capitulated in embarrassing fashion during the closing stages of the Tests against England, Italy and Wales. Even the natives of those nations have publicly opined that this is the worst Bok team in history.

The coaches must share the blame. While it’s true that the Boks will never compete consistently against the All Blacks or any of the other top teams until SA Rugby gets its house in order, a win record of 33% in a calendar year indicates that the current coaching staff is out of its depth. Indeed, the likes of Jake White, Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer all operated in the same system, and still managed to steer their respective teams to win records of 60-odd percent.

It’s believed that SA Rugby is battling to find the money to pay out head coach Allister Coetzee. The man himself has remained defiant, and has refused to do the right thing by walking away. Coetzee remains adamant that he is up to the task, even though everything about the recent season – from the flawed selections to the confused tactics to the culture of mediocrity – suggests otherwise.

The England side that started at Twickenham this past Saturday was without a host of frontline forwards. Yet, an understrength team showed terrific character to fight back from a 10-point deficit and beat Australia 37-21. England’s tactics were spot on. The belief that they could turn things around was always there. That is what good coaching has instilled.

Fourteen months ago, a similar side lost to Australia and Wales at Twickenham during the World Cup pool stages. At the home of rugby this past Saturday, Jones’s team clawed its way back into the contest and then delivered the killing blow. 

SA Rugby has to make changes to the national structures. It also needs to make changes to the Bok coaching staff sooner rather than later if it wants the national team to improve on its results in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.

Coetzee failed to take the Stormers forward between 2010 and 2015. He has used every excuse under the sun during his first year as Bok coach, but the performances and results of his team have indicated that something is very wrong at a coaching level.

The restructuring of SA Rugby is a long-term project. Even if it is done correctly, it will be years before a revised system influences the results of the national team to any telling effect.

Coetzee is not the right man to coach the Boks in the interim. As his record at the Stormers indicates, he’s not the right man to stage a turnaround. If he remains at the helm in 2017, the Boks will fail to grow.

Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli