SA’s coaching cupboard is bare

The South African coaching collective will bring a knife to a gunfight in 2016, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Nollis Marais. Franco Smith. Johan Ackermann. Gary Gold. Robbie Fleck. Deon Davids. These are the men tasked with coaching the Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks, Stormers, and Kings respectively in 2016.

Four of the six will hold the position of Vodacom Super Rugby head coach for the first time. Of the remaining two, Ackermann will be at the helm of the Lions for the third successive season, and Gold will be in charge of the Sharks for the second year in a row.

The current situation is such that South Africa’s six coaches have only three years’ worth of experience between them. Many have served as assistants at franchise level, and Gold and Smith as head coaches at European club level. And yet the experience of heading up a Super Rugby side is in desperately short supply.

Nobody should be surprised if the South African franchises struggle in the 2016 Super Rugby competition. Any expectation of success, at franchise and national level, is baseless.

The South African franchises have missed an opportunity to initiate significant change. While it’s true that some don’t have the finances to secure coaching heavyweights, it’s also true that most administrators are simply against the idea of bringing a foreigner into the mix. So many deny the fact that local isn’t lekker at present.

The Stormers told us they were different. When Eddie Jones confirmed that he would be furthering his career with England instead of the Cape franchise, Western Province president Thelo Wakefield promised the Stormers would ‘catch another big fish’. Director of rugby Gert Smal made it clear that he wanted a like for like replacement for Jones, someone who had international experience and was considered a heavyweight on the global coaching circuit.

John Mitchell was the obvious candidate. Smal wanted Mitchell, as he felt the New Zealander could do a similar job to Jones. Perhaps Smal also saw a chance to change a Stormers culture that is too player-driven and undeniably complacent. Perhaps Smal wanted a Jones or a Mitchell to harden the team up the way Rassie Erasmus did when he arrived in the Cape in 2007.

The Bulls, Cheetahs, Sharks and Kings are not spoiled for choice with regards to head coach candidates. The Lions have grown under Ackermann over the past three years, although they will have to develop further if they hope to contend for the play-offs in the coming season.

The Stormers, by contrast, have had the opportunity to nail down two big names over the past few months. They succeeded in signing Jones, and it was a massive blow when the Australian was subsequently snapped up by the England national side.

They could have had Mitchell if not for the antiquated and largely ignorant attitude of the WP board. Stormers fans and stakeholders will now have to settle for Fleck, a coach who battled to make his mark as a assistant not too long ago.

The coaching triumvirate of Allister Coetzee, Matt Proudfoot and Fleck guided the Stormers to the play-offs on four occasions in six years. However, the Stormers’ play-off record of one win from five matches during that period points to the limitations of those coaches as well as the playing group.

Coetzee, Proudfoot and Fleck were good enough to guide the Stormers to the play-offs, but no further. In August, Coetzee and Proudfoot moved on to the Kobelco Steelers in Japan. Fleck was demoted to WP U21 head coach.

Much has transpired in the ensuing months. Jones is no longer a head coach option and the board has blocked the appointment of Mitchell. Fleck, one of the three coaches who battled to develop the Stormers between 2010 and 2015, is suddenly being talked about as a coach with the necessary skills to take the Cape franchise forward in 2016.

All this talk is an insult to the intelligence of every Stormers supporter. It’s also unfair on Fleck, who's clearly not ready for the responsibility.

What the appointment of Fleck suggests is that the South African coaching cupboard is bare. Stormers supporters may demand that the administration hooks another big fish. The problem is that not many are biting. They had an opportunity to reel in Mitchell, but conspired to make the unbelievable decision to throw him back.

It’s this kind of thinking that has been prevalent in the search for a new Springbok coach. Coetzee’s time with the Stormers witnessed no significant highs. Had he stayed with the Cape franchise, they would have remained a middling team at best in 2016.

That Coetzee has been sounded out for the Bok post shows that Saru has no real alternative or that it refuses to accept a foreign coach may have the answers to South African rugby's problems.

Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli