The standard of coaching at the South African Vodacom Super Rugby franchises is a grave concern, writes RYAN VREDE.
Watching the Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls this past weekend was a painful experience. Indeed it has been for the majority of the campaign.
The results, in my view, are a by-product of average coaching. Certainly it would be remiss not to heap some blame on the players but, with the exception of the Lions, there has been very little to suggest the coaches have the level of competence to positively affect the outcome for their respective teams.
It pains to see inferior players from the Australasian franchises trump superior South African players because the former are better coached. Decision-making under pressure, spacial awareness, tactical awareness and core skills are things that are refined through good coaching. South African players, with a large proportion of those being Springboks, have shown up poorly in these departments this season.
It's a problem that dates back to the start of the professional era in this country and it's disturbing that 20 years into professionalism we've made so little progress in our elite coaching ranks. I've maintained through my writing over the years that South African players have the capacity to learn high-level skills (technical and tactical) if taught by an elite coach. One only needs to see the impact Eddie Jones made on the Springboks' attacking game at the World Cup in 2007 as proof of that. Closer to home, Jake White improved the Sharks markedly in key performance areas last season. There seems to be no promise of such improvements on the horizon for the four teams I've listed.
Outside of that group, I've been very impressed with what Johan Ackermann has done with the Lions this season. He is a gifted coach whose side has benefited from his level of competence. The converse is true for the other local Super Rugby franchises.
The South African Super Rugby challenge has suffered partly because the country's best coaches are not in head coaching positions. Nick Mallett works as a TV analyst, Rassie Erasmus is employed by the South African Rugby Union, White is consulting, while Brendan Venter drifts between Saracens and the Sharks in a overseeing capacity. These men would transform any side they coached.
Instead we're left with coaches on the next tier of competence.
The Sharks' humiliation at home against the Crusaders came off the back of their worst performance in the tournament's history. Director of rugby Gary Gold issued an apology on Twitter and vowed to improve going forward. It was a shrewd PR move (even if it was unintended to be that), with a fair number of responders adopting a sympathetic position. These people are content with mediocrity and have little inclination to hold their coach accountable.
Just like a large portion of the Stormers' support base. The Cape side have won just one of their last 10 tour matches, the latest failure on the road coming against the Hurricanes on Saturday. Yet the focus since then hasn't been about their woeful first-half performance but rather about poor officiating. It seems most have scratched the defeat from the record on the basis that the referee had a bad day. What utter nonsense.
I wrote earlier in the season that Alistair Coetzee's impending departure was a good thing for the franchise. I argued the team has regressed and stagnated under his leadership. I said they desperately need a coach of greater quality. When they started the tournament strongly I received plenty of abuse for the aforementioned assertions. I'd like to think my position has been vindicated.
Both the Stormers and Sharks have looked like poorly coached sides in recent weeks. There have been clear and fundamental errors in their game plan and selections. Those weren't always exposed and exploited by the opposition in the tournament's infancy, but have subsequently been. The Stormers, when bossing territory and ticking the scoreboard over through penalties, are a hard side to beat. But get two converted scores in front of them and you are virtually assured victory given their chronic attacking impotence. I've written that particular line countless times since 2011. There has been no improvement through coaching and there won't be. Coetzee and his assistants are incapable of remedying this deficiency.
Gold has inherited an excellent squad from his predecessor, White, yet has somehow managed to make a mud cake from the finest ingredients. The Sharks have won half their matches. They sit in sixth position and still have to tour. Their prospects look bleak unless Gold can somehow take his men to a consistent level of performance that better reflects the calibre of player he has available to him.
Certainly he was missing some key players for Saturday's fixture, but that cannot mitigate taking 50 at home to an average Crusaders side who at one stage were reduced to 12 players. Gold needs to show he has the skills to be a successful head coach at this level. Success at the Sharks, given their resources, must be defined as securing a home semi-final. Anything less than that would constitute failure.
I've written before about the Bulls' plight. They've lost a clutch of senior players in two separate exoduses (2011 and 2013). Their form has been patchy but they are the best placed South African franchise in terms of contesting a semi-final spot. Defeat against the Lions dented their ambition but is unlikely to leave a mortal wound. Still it was frustrating to see them stumble through the derby, once again exhibiting a worrying degree of tactical inflexibility. They will argue they have found a tactical system that works for them when executed correctly. The problem is elite opponents have often blunted them tactically, at which point they've looked devoid of a telling rebuttal.
With all this said, it's important to celebrate Ackermann and his team. He has taken a group of largely average players and made them very hard to beat. Their three wins on tour was an incredible feat and set them up to challenge for a play-off spot. Ackermann's team's performances owes much to his ever-growing competence. If only this could be said of his peers.
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