SA Rugby must curb brain drain

The loss of coaching intellect in South Africa is as damning and damaging as the ever-increasing player exodus overseas, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

In South African rugby, we’ve become so accustomed to players heading abroad that it hardly causes much of a stir anymore as the powerful lure of the euro, pound, yen and a different lifestyle overseas continues to draw our best players away.

Considering the quality of players plying their trade in Europe and Japan, it’s no surprise that the Boks have retained the status quo this year to enable Allister Coetzee to continue picking overseas-based players.

Just recently, there were seven Saffas in the Montpellier starting lineup as Jake White’s charges went on to win the European Challenge Cup, while former Stormers players Mike Rhodes and Schalk Brits celebrated Saracens' success in the Champions Cup. At big-spending Toulon, top Boks such as Duane Vermeulen and Bryan Habana have excelled. These examples could go on and on.

At some point, SA Rugby’s endeavours to keep players in South Africa may need to include some drastic changes, or alternatively a mindset shift that mirrors that of international football teams that happily draw their players from all over the globe.

Yet, just as the debate surrounding selecting overseas-based players continues to ripple through SA rugby circles, we should be paying equal attention to the brain drain that is seeing our top coaches no longer continuing to contribute to the game in South Africa.

Last month, SA Rugby confirmed that Rassie Erasmus, who has headed up the coaching mobi-unit, would be heading to Ireland to take up a position as director of rugby at Munster. It’s believed that highly-regarded defensive guru Jacques Nienaber could well join him there.

Some reports have suggested Erasmus’s decision to head abroad was at least partially influenced by the fact he has grown disillusioned with some of the political infighting and uncertainty among SA Rugby’s upper hierarchy.

In the end, a man with incredible rugby intellect and who was one of the strong contenders for the Bok job, will no longer have a role to play in contributing to either the Boks or any of our domestic sides.

Similarly, Heyneke Meyer, who has been out of rugby since vacating his post as Bok coach last November, is apparently being courted by English club Bath, while also having options in Japan.

For whatever shortcomings Meyer may have, his experience as the man at the helm of the Springboks for the past four years surely still holds immense value. As it is, Allister Coetzee has mentioned that he wouldn’t be afraid to touch base with Meyer to discuss certain subjects should the need arise.

It’s the sort of collaboration, even in an informal capacity, that could only benefit the Boks. Instead, Meyer may well take his talents and experience overseas.

And so it’s been for World Cup-winning coach Jake White, who has achieved outstanding results at both the Brumbies and more recently, Montpellier. His stint at the Sharks, despite taking them to the Super Rugby semi-finals, was short-lived.

His successor at the Boks, Peter de Villiers, has battled to find work in South Africa and has now taken up a position in Namibia. Say what you like, but De Villiers was able to achieve some historic results during his time with the Springboks. Surely he has something to offer?

And it goes on and on. John Mitchell, citing a vendetta against him in South African rugby, has taken up a job coaching the USA Eagles. Former long-serving Sharks coach John Plumtree has had an immense impact at the Hurricanes. Top rugby brain Alan Solomons, who worked wonders at the Kings, has been coaching in Scotland.

Former Bulls coach Frans Ludeke is in Japan, while Junior Bok coach Dawie Theron could also be heading in that direction to join the Docomo Red Hurricanes in July. Former Bok assistant coach Ricardo Loubscher has battled to find a coaching gig in South Africa and has begun helping out with Pretoria Boys' U14 team. Dick Muir, a former Sharks coach and Bok assistant, is no longer involved in high-level coaching. Ex-Bok and Italy coach Nick Mallett has found the SuperSport studio more rewarding than a return to coaching in South Africa.

Meanwhile, most recently, Bok assistant coach Johann van Graan has been linked with a top-level job at Bath, which is a move that may only fail to materialise if SA Rugby decides to hold him to his contract.

Compare these examples to the situation in New Zealand where Graham Henry enjoyed support and security in the top job, took the All Blacks to a World Cup triumph, and then handed the baton over to Steve Hansen in a carefully considered succession plan that has been as seamless as it has been successful. His assistants are settled and secure in their roles.

Across all the New Zealand Super Rugby sides, centralisation ensures collaboration and cooperation that prioritises the wellbeing of the All Blacks and coaches working together for the betterment of the national cause.

It’s something in South Africa we have to strive towards. And in this regard, it has been encouraging to see Allister Coetzee and his management spending time travelling to the various unions around the country.

But we also have to begin to place greater value on retaining the rugby intellect that our top South African coaches possess and are willing to share. If we continue to disregard it, there’s no doubt top rugby men such as Meyer and Erasmus will continue to opt for 'greener' pastures elsewhere.

Photo: Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images

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Craig Lewis