Robert du Preez’s post-match press conference at Newlands is symptomatic of his reign at the Sharks, writes DYLAN JACK.
For those who missed it, following the Sharks’ snatch-and-grab victory over the Stormers last weekend courtesy of an 82nd-minute Lukhanyo Am try, Du Preez slammed his critics at the post-match media conference by referring to certain sections of the media as ‘cockroaches’.
‘All the terrible press that this team and the management have been getting over the last month‚ is just a complete a joke,’ Du Preez said.
Not even going into the problematic historical connotations, especially in Africa, of the word ‘cockroaches’, one has to question why Du Preez felt that was the right time to hit out at those who criticised him and the team. Perhaps it was the emboldened feeling of proving one’s doubters wrong.
No matter the reason, it ended up overshadowing not only the team’s win, but their achievement of once again qualifying for the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs.
It’s not the first time, either. Du Preez used it early on during the team’s three-match Australasian tour. Once again it somewhat overshadowed the fact that they ultimately picked up a handy six points on tour, beating the Waratahs and holding defending champions the Crusaders to a draw.
In short, it’s a defensive retort from Du Preez that’s not doing the Sharks brand any good – particularly from a coach who has never been particularly media-friendly. In a time when rugby is struggling as much as it ever has in the professional era, the South African franchises need coaches who are at the very least willing to engage with the media.
What Du Preez may not fully appreciate is that the rugby-watching public views coaches and players through the eyes of the media. When Du Preez becomes tetchy at a media conference, supporters are bound to lose faith in his ability to create a positive team environment because that’s the personality that is often reflected through sound bites or media reports.
A good example of how to use the media correctly, is Liverpool FC coach Jurgen Klopp. He has presented himself as the everyman creating a positive team culture for the fans to feel part of without sacrificing any competitiveness.
As a counterpart, former Manchester United and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has throughout his career had a tense relationship with the media. At times, the Portuguese coach used the media’s criticism to create a ‘us-against-them’ mentality in his squad, but that has generally been most successful when results are going their way.
When Mourinho teams tended to lose and draw more than they won, that’s when his media outbursts have harmed rather than helped his efforts to turn the season around. Du Preez finds himself in a very similar situation as his Sharks team has a 7-1-8 record this year.
Now, does Du Preez deserve the criticism he’s received during his tenure? Nothing from what I have read by professional journalists has gone too far into the realm of becoming too personal or too harsh.
To Du Preez’s credit, he’s managed to keep the Sharks relatively stable in terms of results during a tumultuous period in their history. He’s blooded a number of young players such as Lukhanyo Am, Curwin Bosch, Aphelele Fassi and S’bu Nkosi to replace old heads of the likes of Pat Lambie, Odwa Ndungane and Lwazi Mvovo without causing too much of an upheaval.
However, it’s a different question entirely as to whether the Sharks have progressed under him. From the stories coming out of the camp, it does appear that he has struggled to always maintain a winning and happy team culture.
Legitimate questions can also be asked about whether or not he is truly objective when it comes to the selection of his sons. Now, Jean-Luc, Daniel and Robert Jr are excellent players and would walk into any team in the world when they are on top of their game.
Sadly for Robert Jr, it’s quite clear he has played far too much rugby after deciding to forego an off-season and join the Sale Sharks in December instead. However, Robert Sr has still regularly selected the flyhalf, who has featured in a joint-op 16 matches this season.
The tactical change of bringing Robert Jr on off the bench, shifting Bosch to fullback and taking Fassi off has been regularly applied this season and has consistently confounded viewers. It’s become increasingly evident that Robert Jr would have benefited from an off-season away from the rigours of intense competition, or at least to have enjoyed a lengthier time off upon his return from his UK stint.
To date, the Sharks have finished in a mediocre eighth place in three seasons. They have yet to score more than 50 tries in a Super Rugby season, the 11th-best effort in 2018. Du Preez’s results have been consistent, but there has been no improvement under him.
Comments like those made last Saturday will certainly not help the legacy he leaves behind at the Sharks. In a way, and as Mourinho may attest, it also rarely helps to start a war of words with the media, who serve as a mouthpiece to the wider audience of supporters.
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