South Africa’s teams must put the game back on the pedestal and ensure that ‘the main thing stays the main thing’, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Over the course of the Covid-19 enforced break, the South African rugby community has reflected on the 2019 World Cup campaign at length. Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has used the opportunity to share some behind-the-scenes footage on social media while new coach Jacques Nienaber and several others have unpacked the team’s motto of ‘let the main thing stay the main thing’.
It sounds so simple, so obvious. Focus on the game – from the conditioning of the players to the finer tactical details. Demand the very best in terms of effort and performance, and ensure that everyone in the group views winning as a priority from day one.
Creating that environment, of course, is not so simple. South African rugby is full of political animals that serve their own interests rather than those of a particular franchise and those of the national team. It’s for this reason that Erasmus cannot receive enough credit for aligning the key role players to push in one direction during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Two years ago, Jake White made the point in a column that Erasmus was in a unique situation in that he had the backing of administrators and franchise coaches alike. White said that Erasmus and the Boks were bound to improve in such a system, the inference being that SA Rugby and the franchise coaches often work against the Boks rather than with them.
White has since returned to South Africa to revive the Vodacom Bulls. The president and the board have been impressed by the manner in which he has gone about his business. Like Erasmus, White has taken a holistic approach to his director of rugby role in terms of relationship building and recruitment.
White has always been good at identifying and nurturing talent. A large number of players who starred in his South African U21 side in 2002 went on to win the World Cup with his Bok team in 2007. He made a lot of changes when he arrived at the Brumbies in 2012, and while some sectors in Australia bemoaned his pragmatic gameplan, the Brumbies recorded impressive results and many of those players went on to star for the Wallabies.
Big-name players have followed him when he’s changed clubs. Frans Steyn played for White at the Boks, the Sharks and Montpellier. Gio Aplon starred for Toyota Verblitz and is now on his way to the Bulls. Again, while some have criticised White’s methods, many more believe in his approach and his ability to get results.
Older players like Duane Vermeulen, Marcel van der Merwe and Aplon will add value to the Bulls set-up, as would a Marcel Coetzee or an Arno Botha. White has always picked balanced teams, and a number of promising South African youngsters are reportedly on the Bulls’ shopping list.
We live in uncertain times, but what we know is that Erasmus has committed to the Boks up to the 2023 World Cup. South Africa, a country that’s suffered more than its fair share of coach and player losses over the past few years, finally has some good news in that a world-class coach such as White has returned to the system.
It’s good news for the franchise in question and it’s good news for the Boks. While Erasmus, Nienaber and White may differ in some departments, they all believe in putting the game first and that winning is the ultimate measure of success. They understand what it takes to create an environment conducive to excellence.
The Sharks have got a lot right in terms of their culture and playing style and that has yielded significant results in 2020. During the early stages of the season, the Stormers were similar impressive.
One would hope to see these teams building in future. It may be easier said than done for the Cape franchise, as the administration and the coaching team haven’t been aligned for years.
More needs to be done to address the varying situations of inadequacy at the Cheetahs, Lions and Kings. There is a lot of talent in South Africa that goes untapped or unmaximised due to poor management or a lack of alignment.
The Bulls have used this break to address their off-field issues and initiate a restructure. It’s fair to say that the strides they’ve taken in recent months will improve their chances of success in the coming seasons.