What champions are made of

There are key pieces that have to fall into place to solve the World Cup puzzle, writes CLINTON VAN DEN BERG in the latest issue of SA Rugby Magazine.

Jake White likes to tell the story of how Louis Luyt once told Kitch Christie that his job was simple.

‘If it’s that simple,’ replied the Springbok coach in 1995, ‘why don’t you coach the team, Doc?’

At the Wanderers Club the next morning, there was Luyt in his stokies and tracksuit pants, whistle in hand.

It didn’t take long for the gruff rugby boss to realise that things weren’t quite so easy. Christie was back running his team that afternoon. Interlopers be damned.

Neither Luyt nor Christie is still alive to provide his version of events, but White makes the point to illustrate that one of the key ingredients for World Cup success is the coach being fully in charge.

‘I got almost everything I wanted,’ said White, architect of the Bok World Cup triumph in Paris 12 years ago, ‘but it took a fight to do so. Ironically, now the coach gets whatever he wants.’

White talks about imperatives like fitness and discipline, but for him the softer elements, like momentum, are more critical in shaping a crack at the World Cup.

He believes the 1995 Boks gained supreme momentum in the opening win against Australia, Pieter Hendriks’ fist-pumping at Newlands a defiant signature of their resolve.

White says the momentum in 2007 came in the 36-0 defeat of England in the pool game, when South Africa were almost perfect, playing as the rugby gods might.

‘You need a spark and the Boks might get that in the first game against New Zealand. But even if they don’t, they won’t implode … there’s no pressure on anyone. Both teams will get to the quarter-finals,’ said White, quietly bullish about a third Springbok triumph.

Interestingly, former Springbok captain Morne du Plessis managed the team in 1995, and he also referenced emotion, in the sense that the team of 2019 must find its ‘magic moment’.

‘Home-ground advantage was huge in ’95, but we don’t have that. The Mandela factor, too, but that no longer exists. It was a moment in time; there can never be another, coming just after the democratic elections. But it’s got to be there, somewhere, especially where we now find ourselves as a country. If we get it right, it will motivate people to learn to live together in a better way.’

If such a factor is hard-won, there are other, more tangible fundamentals tied to a winning World Cup campaign.

Du Plessis cites physical preparation as critical. In 1995, the Boks prepared with warm-ups against Western Province and Natal. This year, all the big teams play major opposition and rugby fitness has become a science, so the physical margins will be slight.

‘The leadership group is vital. All must see eye to eye and have a common goal. It’s more than just winning the Cup – it’s about shared philosophies, values, rules. Everyone must buy in and the relationship and confidence in the coach is terribly important, as it was in ’95,’ said Du Plessis, mentioning Christie’s view that his job was ‘not rocket science’.

‘The Springboks need the right 31, which includes individual brilliance and a place for everyone in the team network. It’s also critical to have a pre-determined plan: what games are important? Who is going to play? If you don’t win your tier-one games, you shouldn’t win the World Cup. Kitch almost pre-determined that path and who would play in which games.

‘Also, we need discipline in all aspects, like sticking to the game plan and not giving penalties away. The margins are so small, it’s scary. The fear of failure must not be so great that it freezes us. There must be some freedom. Great coaches can get that and it’s something Rassie [Erasmus] is doing nicely.’

Inevitably, John Smit, who held the Webb Ellis Cup aloft in 2007, has had 12 years from that glorious moment to distil precisely what it took to drink beer from that trophy.

He rattles off three indispensable qualities that defined his team’s championship quality.

The first is an effective game plan suited to the group of players, the system and the structure. ‘They must believe in it and have the ability to execute, based on their style and talent.’

The second, and one that is richly evident in the class of 2019, is having a group of  blokes who enjoy each other’s company. ‘Having a healthy respect for one another creates a good culture.’

The third anchor, according to Smit, is possessing X factor players and leaders who can work together. ‘The guys must yearn for team trophies, not selfish moments. I was the captain, but there were several leaders, like Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, who all helped us focus on becoming better. I had massive trust in them.’

Unsurprisingly, the value of culture is echoed by Francois Pienaar, who famously captained the Boks in 1995.

‘One of the ingredients to be competitive at a World Cup is you must have the right culture in the side,’ says Pienaar.

If they’re lucky, this culture is transferred from the nucleus of winning players coming from one specific provincial team.

Pienaar said that in 1987 – when New Zealand won – the bulk of the squad came from the imperious Auckland team. Four years later, it was Queensland heralding the Australian World Cup win. This was followed by the Lions, led magnificently by Pienaar, who then took up the Bok reins in 1995.

Twelve years later, it was the Bulls and the Sharks who dominated Super Rugby and then formed the heart of White’s champion squad.

Predictably, in 2011 and 2015, the All Blacks drew from the excellence of the Crusaders to build their World Cup challenge.

‘You’ve got to look at form,’ adds Pienaar. ‘If you don’t pick players who are in form going into the World Cup you will come unstuck.

‘You’ve also got to see which combinations work and leadership is crucial. You have to have the leadership to close a game down in the final 10 minutes.’

Having won World Cups in 1995 and 2007, Os du Randt is uniquely placed to offer his perspective. He told the Springbok online magazine White’s decision in 2007 to leave experienced players behind for the away Tests against Australia and New Zealand was smart.

‘This allowed us to sort things out as senior players. It also made us realise that we as players need to take control of what we want to achieve on and off the field. We changed certain things, and Jake and his management team had to stand back to allow that and they did, giving us all the responsibility. This proved how we had grown as a team and that we were ready to take control of our destiny,’ wrote the great prop.

‘I believe the golden thread between our World Cup wins in 1995 and 2007 is how hard we trained. This started with management pushing us, but both times the players later took charge of that. We didn’t allow anyone to train harder on their own. We persevered as a team.’

Champion words spoken by champion men.

Now it’s time for the team of 2019 to write their own great story, as demonstrated by their forebears.

Winning the World Cup – the  10 Commandments

Veteran rugby writer Dan Retief has analysed and written at length about South Africa’s two World Cup triumphs, culminating in his excellent book The Springboks and the Holy Grail.

Common threads prevail and he has pulled them together to list the 10 critical elements common to teams winning the World Cup, of which there have been just eight.

These, then, are the underlying requirements for lifting the Webb Ellis Cup:

  • Capabilities of the coach: all the winning coaches have been pragmatic and meticulous and enjoyed great respect.
  • A leader of men: all eight winning captains have possessed special qualities.
  • Strong quotient of galacticos: superstars have abounded.
  • A supreme goal-kicker: Joel Stransky scored all 15 points in the World Cup triumph of 1995. Enough said.
  • A perfect 10: Rugby 101.
  • A deep well of experience: rookies don’t win World Cups.
  • Unwavering discipline: anything less and a campaign can be derailed.
  • Brilliant backup staff: this thread has run through every winning team.
  • Esprit de corps: As Alexandre Dumas put it with the pledge of the three musketeers: ‘All for one, one for all.’
  • Extreme fitness: the cornerstone of any champion team.