Times are tough for rugby fans, unless you’re from New Zealand that is… The mighty All Blacks look unbeatable. They’ve swept aside their traditional rivals like yesterday’s newspaper. The Springboks and Wallabies have no answer. The All Blacks are just too good.
Now I hear many people talk about how South Africa has politics to deal with and how Australian rugby union has to compete with ARL and NRL and whatever other funny sports they play in Melbourne.
Yes well, nothing has changed there. South African sport has always been awash with political meddling and Australian rugby has always had to take on other sports. So it isn’t that… What is it then? Why is New Zealand so much better these days?
To illustrate I’m going to use an example from my other favourite sport…
In 1997 Ferrari recruited a gentleman called Ross Brawn from Benetton racing, along with a certain young driver named Michael Schumacher. They formed a formidable team, and despite being slower than the McLarens of the day, the team of Brawn and Schumacher ended up making Ferrari the most successful team of that era. Schumacher won many championships, all of them in fact, from 2000 to 2004. During that time Ferrari also had Jean Todt and Rory Byrne as part of their F1 team. They had recruited the best and then left them to do their job.
Mercedes didn’t even have a racing team at the time.
Fast forward to 2008. Ross Brawn was recruited as team principle for Honda racing. Honda pulled out and left Brawn a bit stranded so he said “screw this, I’ll make my own team”, which he did. And Jenson Button won the world championship with Brawn racing in 2009.
Brawn racing was then bought by Mercedes. Mercedes implemented a long term strategy to make the best of Ross Brawn’s talents and put in place a brilliant succession plan which is responsible for their fantastic success of the last few years. They’ve dominated F1 completely under the current set of regulations. Nobody else comes close.
But what of Ferrari, that great and passionate team that dominated under Ross Brawn? Well, their succession plan wasn’t very good. They’ve had more team principles in the last eight or so years than my brain allows me to remember. They haven’t managed a world title since Kimi Raikkonnen won it thanks to Alonso and Hamilton sabotaging each other in 2007, that despite having some of the best drivers of all time in Alonso and now Sebastien Vettel leading the driver team. There is meddling from management, no clear strategy and no clear idea of where the team is going or at least it appears that way.
And that is what has happened in rugby.
While the South African Rugby Union has made short sighted decisions and replaced entire coaching teams every four years, New Zealand rugby has had the foresight to groom coaches in a successful team environment. Steve Hanson worked under Graham Henry for eight years. They didn’t fire Henry after New Zealand were dumped out of the 2007 world cup, despite his head being demanded on a platter by many disgruntled fans. No, they kept him on, and what happened?
They got even better. They won the 2011 rugby world cup and then Hanson took over and won the 2015 world cup, and when he moves on they have Ian Foster, Wayne Smith, Chris Boyd all ready to take over, and now New Zealand, with close on twelve years of coaching continuity, are untouchable.
What about South Africa then?
Let’s start in 2004, I could go even back further to Nick Mallet but that would take too long and you’d all get bored.
South African rugby appointed Jake White as Springbok coach. He put together a good coaching team and built up a squad of players that ended his tenure as the most capped Springbok team ever. He made the inspired decision to appoint Jon Smit as captain. He developed world beating combinations like the lock pair of Victor Matfield and Bakkie Botha and centres Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie. He made Bryan Habana a worldwide superstar.
His pragmatic approach involved using the traditional strengths of South African Rugby to build a team that was feared the world over and emerged triumphant at the 2007 Rugby World Cup… The sky was the limit; South African rugby was on the verge of returning to greatness.
And then the geniuses that run South African rugby fired him…
Pieter de Villiers was then appointed ahead of White’s assistant Alistair Coetzee and Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer.
The 2011 World Cup ended with South Africa losing to Australia in a game that I still consider one of the biggest robberies of all time. Referee Bryce Lawrence lost his contact lenses (and his mind) and completely missed a blatant shoulder charge into Heinrich Brussow’s ribs by Dan Vickerman and ALL of the rules pertaining to the breakdown area allowing Australia to spoil and break every rule known to man with being penalized.
But I digress. South Africa didn’t win the world cup…
And then the geniuses that run South African rugby fired Pieter de Villiers.
Enter Heyneke Meyer, the man who coached the Bulls from Pretoria to unprecedented success.
2015 world cup, Springboks finished third, narrowly losing to New Zealand in the semi-final.
And then the geniuses that run South African rugby fired / forced Heyneke Meyer to resign and took their sweet time appointing his successor. The same Alistair Coetzee that had been Jake White’s assistant, the same man they should have appointed in 2008…
Every time SARU makes a decision, the Springboks had to start again. New coach, new assistant coaches, new gameplan, new captain…
So, like Ferrari, the foundation for unprecedented success was laid, but thanks to short sighted decisions and meddling from people who have no business running a corner café, never mind a national rugby union. South African rugby has gone backwards.
It’s no wonder people in New Zealand are lamenting the lack of competition. They’ve moved forwards but everyone else has either stayed still or gone backwards. There is no continuity in South African rugby coaching and zero foresight. The people running it are buffoons and are frankly not capable of doing any better. Had they kept Jake White as coach, South Africa could well have won two more world cups and kept pace with the forward thinking New Zealanders. Instead they replace coaches more often than most people replace cars and then give those coaches impossible to achieve performance criteria, whilst limiting their decision making ability.
It doesn’t matter who they appoint. It is the organisation that is stifling progress. It is the organisation that is holding them back. It is the organisation that simply doesn’t know what the hell they are doing.