The lieutenants who will be key for Boks, B&I Lions

Often unheralded, the assistant coaches in the British & Irish Lions and Bok camps will have key roles to play. SA Rugby magazine takes a closer look.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the greatest rugby speech wasn’t made by a captain, head coach or director of rugby. When Jim Telfer delivered 320 immortal words in a thick Scottish growl on 21 June 1997, his job title with the British & Irish Lions read, ‘assistant coach’.

‘This is your f***ing Everest, boys,’ he told Martin Johnson and the rest of the Lions forwards in a Cape Town hotel conference room before the first Test against the World Cup champions, the Springboks. ‘Very few ever get a chance in rugby terms to get for [sic] the top of Everest. You have the chance today.’

The speech is now part of rugby folklore, thanks in part to the iconic documentary Living With Lions as well as the tourists’ remarkable 2-1 series win. Unlike football, that deifies managers, or cricket, that places captains squarely in the spotlight, rugby likes to portray itself as a more egalitarian sport. Part of rugby’s self-aggrandising mythology is that every player, from the diminutive fullback to the stout prop, has a role to play. All have a place in the machine that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

The same is true for those stationed in the coaches’ box on match day. And if Telfer’s speech is anything to go by, a few choice words offered at just the right time to just the right people can make all the difference.

With that said, we shine a light on the men who would otherwise stand in the shadows of head coaches Warren Gatland and Jacques Nienaber as the Lions once again head to Africa’s southern tip to take on the world champions. 

Gregor Townsend

Lions attack coach

The former Scotland flyhalf wasn’t in the same room as Telfer 24 years ago, but he was in the same hotel as part of the first Lions tour of the professional era, making six appearances and scoring tries against the Sharks and Northern Transvaal. Townsend is the coach of Scotland and has helped turn the perennial underachievers of Europe into one of the most exciting outfits on the planet.

With Stuart Hogg almost guaranteed to start the first Test at fullback, Townsend’s expertise will prove invaluable. Then there is the question of Finn Russell at flyhalf. The enigmatic No 10 would be a surprise pick given the more prosaic options available, but with Townsend calling the plays, perhaps Gatland might be inclined to unleash the 28-year-old Scot.

Robin McBryde

Lions forward coach

If not for injury, the Welsh hooker with 37 caps for his country may have earned a Test appearance for the Lions, adding to his four mid-week games played in Australia in 2001. After hanging up his boots with a Grand Slam victory with Wales in 2001, McBryde began his coaching career with the Scarlets, the same club he represented 250 times.

It wasn’t long before he was working with the Wales national team and served as interim coach in 2009 and 2013 while Gatland was on Lions duty. With two Six Nations titles in three years, as well as a semi-final appearance in Japan in 2019, Welsh rugby is enjoying a golden period. Alun Wyn Jones, the most capped international with 157 Tests, will start at lock. Against such a powerful Bok pack, McBryde could do well to pull a leaf from Telfer’s book and evoke that Everest analogy.

Steve Tandy

Lions defence coach 

How do you stop Cheslin Kolbe once he finds space? How do you counter the imposing Springbok maul? What threat does Damien de Allende, the most in-form centre in the world, pose in midfield?

These are just some of the questions that will occupy the thoughts of Welshman Steve Tandy. Not that he’s overthinking things at this stage. Speaking at a virtual press conference in April, Tandy, whose work with Scotland over the past two years has seen them concede the fewest Six Nations tries in that period, said he was ‘blown away’ by the opportunity to work with Gatland and the Lions.

‘It has been pretty whirlwind,’ said Tandy, who has also worked with Ospreys in the Pro12 and the Waratahs in Super Rugby. ‘I did watch the 2019 World Cup final. Just seeing how big and smart a team they are. This is the pinnacle.’

Neil Jenkins

Lions kicking coach

Few Springbok fans with memories of the 1997 tour will need reminding of the kicking prowess of Neil Roger Jenkins. He remains Wales’ most prolific scorer with 1 049 points, but it was in the other red shirt he wore that truly broke South African hearts. He kicked five penalties in each of the first two Tests and ended the series with a then-record haul of 41 points (his countryman Leigh Halfpenny notched 49 points against Australia in 2013).

With that sort of pedigree Jenkins was destined to stay in the game and this trip to South Africa will be his second successive Lions tour as part of the coaching team – after the previous two as a player. He has also been a member of Wales’ management team since 2007, working under three head coaches. With two Tests slated for the Highveld, whichever team can boss it from the boot will reign supreme. Not that Jenkins, or Bok fans, need reminding.

Mzwandile Stick

Springbok assistant coach

Eyebrows were raised when Mzawndile Stick was appointed Springbok backline coach in April 2016 despite his relatively modest CV. It was only the year before that he served in the same capacity for the Southern Kings, having previously worked with Eastern Province’s U19 and Vodacom Cup teams. 

His stay with the Boks didn’t last long as he was axed by Allister Coetzee in 2017. When Rassie Erasmus grabbed the wheel in 2018, he brought Stick back into the fold, but in a different capacity.

‘When Stick was appointed, in my opinion he was never a backline coach, not at that level,’ Erasmus said at the time. Instead, Stick was given the specific task of directing play off the ball on both defence and attack. It was a masterstroke. After the 2018 series against England, Eddie Jones praised the Springboks’ work off the ball.

‘People don’t understand how important Stick’s department is in the modern game, Stokke drives the engine,’ Nienaber told SA Rugby magazine in March last year. Perhaps now he’ll start earning the plaudits he deserves.

Deon Davids

Springbok assistant/forwards coach

Matthew Proudfoot has left some pretty big shoes to fill. There were many reasons why the Springboks were victorious two years ago in Yokohama: Kolbe’s magic, Mapimpi’s brilliance, Erasmus’ genius, Kolisi’s inspiration. Ultimately, it was all built on the bedrock of brawn laid down by the Bok pack. As forward’s coach, Proudfoot was rightly singled out.

Deon Davids is no mug, but he’s untested at this level. He’s worked with the Emerging Springboks and SA U20s, as well as domestic outfits Boland Cavaliers, Golden Lions, SWD Eagles and most recently the Southern Kings before the organisation’s liquidation, but this is a step up. Thankfully, he has a mightily impressive bunch of brutes to work with.

Felix Jones

Springbok assistant coach

The former Ireland fullback with 13 Test appearances first began working with Erasmus at Munster in 2016, helping the club reach the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup in his first season. He gained international coaching experience with his home country under Joe Schmidt, but when Erasmus came calling before the 2019 World Cup, Jones duly obliged.

His role with the side changed last year and is now a ‘European-based coaching consultant’, meaning he and his young family did not have to uproot and live in South Africa. More pertinently, he has kept a closer watch on the plethora of Springboks based in the Northern hemisphere.

Daan Human

Springboks scrum consultant

Twelve years ago, when the Lions were last in Africa, Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira packed down for the first scrum of the first Test in only his 11th appearance for his adopted country. He wasn’t a renowned scrummager then. His nickname, first coined in the schoolyard, was more appropriate for his rollicking open field play. After decimating England’s veteran Phil Vickery, Mtawarira cemented his reputation as one of the best in the business in the scrum.

Daan Human, the Boks’ new scrum guru, will know better than most that Tests are won or lost at the set piece. The former Stormers and Toulouse prop with four Springboks caps, who most recently coached at the Cheetahs and Bulls, will hope one of his heavies up front can write a script as dramatic as Mtawarira’s. 

Photo: Steve Haag Sports

Post by

Craig Lewis