Mzwandile Stick returned to the Springbok set-up as a more strong-willed and streetwise coach, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Mzwandile Stick already has a very different outlook and appreciation for the challenges associated with the career of a coach. At 33, he is still a relative newcomer to the profession, and yet his rapid ascension to a coaching role with the Springboks has forced him to either sink or swim.
Make no mistake, the former Springbok Sevens captain is a man of conviction. Stick knows there were doubters who believed he was out of his depth when he rose quickly through the ranks to form part of Allister Coetzee’s coaching staff in 2016. Stick has been upfront about the fact he had to rebuild the belief in his abilities when he was effectively demoted just a year later – having become the fall guy after the Boks managed just four wins from 12 Tests in that year.
Although he remained in the wider system as he moved into a role as an assistant coach with the Junior Boks, Stick tells SA Rugby magazine he had to embrace a period of introspection after this rollercoaster introduction to coaching at the highest level.
‘That time with the Junior Boks provided me with the opportunity to re-energise myself after 2016. You do feel that punch and start asking questions about where it went wrong, but sometimes things aren’t in your control, so I focused on making a contribution wherever I could.’
As fate would have it, Stick was soon drafted back into the Springbok set-up as part of Rassie Erasmus’ new coaching group. Stick reflects positively on passing what proved to be a considerable character test.
‘With everything that happened in 2016, it opened my eyes. Once you’re involved in the Springbok set-up, you can look in from the outside and think it’s all just going to be a honeymoon phase, but sometimes you end up having to learn through the tough times when results don’t go your way.
‘I now have a real appreciation for this opportunity that I have to coach the Boks again, so I won’t hold anything back. Every day I’m just trying to bring my A game and help the players in whatever way I can.’
It’s on this point – Stick’s job description – that some clarity is needed. Although he served as the Bok backline coach during the Coetzee era, he has taken on a somewhat unconventional role in the new set-up.
With a background in sevens – he captained the Blitzboks to the 2008-09 Sevens Series title – the former Kings assistant coach has been tasked with primarily focusing on the Springboks’ off-the-ball work.
‘I’ve started to see the coaching role in a different light,’ he explains. ‘I’m looking at things like the animation of the players in terms of their work rate and movement off the ball. For example, are the guys bouncing back to their feet in order to defend? Do we have enough numbers to attack?
‘I’ve grown a lot in a short space of time and I think I’m starting to see the bigger picture as a coach,’ he adds. ‘I’ve also been looking closely at individual fundamentals, such as aerial skills, which has been a major focus for us to ensure the players are well equipped for coping under the high ball.’
Those who might read that and still raise a sceptical eyebrow about the value of such a role, would be well advised to take note of the comments from England coach Eddie Jones after the three-Test series against the Boks in June.
‘The big difference between the Springboks now and from six months ago is that they work harder off the ball,’ he said. ‘Then when the opportunity comes, they have the ability to spread the ball into space, with guys on the outside who are making some good decisions.’
Besides that on-field improvement, the Boks have also sought to embrace another change – in how they go about tackling transformation. Having been set a 45% representation target for players of colour over the course of the 2018 season (it will rise to 50% next year), the Boks have adopted an open-door policy when dealing with what is still a sensitive subject.
‘Where it all started with our transformation goals under Rassie is that he doesn’t play hide and seek about it,’ Stick explains. ‘First things first: we want to win Test matches, but there is also a need to achieve transformation targets. Sometimes that subject makes people nervous, but Rassie has always been open and honest about it.
‘The Springboks have a rich culture and transformation does not mean we will be downgrading those standards. We saw that in the way the team performed during the June Tests. We have to embrace the challenge [of transformation] and I think we are finding that balance between winning, building depth and ticking the transformation box.’
It is also revealing that when SA Rugby magazine catches up with Stick in July, he has just come out of an impromptu meeting about preparations for the Rugby Championship.
‘This was actually expected to be a day off, but we wanted to get together to discuss some extra things,’ Stick says with a wry chuckle. ‘The one thing I like about Rassie, and which some people don’t understand, is just how much hard work is put in behind the scenes. We’re trying to take every opportunity we have to work with the players to ensure we are ready for the Championship and to create a winning culture for the team.
‘We have our plans in place and a genius coach in Rassie, who prioritises preparation. As a young coach, I need to remain a student of the game and it’s great to be learning so much in this environment. I’m just so grateful to be in this position again and to give back to a game that is so close to my heart.’
– This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.