‘Master’ Mac brought modern rugby to South Africa
Former Springbok and Sharks coach Ian McIntosh died after a battle with cancer on Tuesday. He was 84 years old.
If you ever met Ian McIntosh, and everyone was welcome to approach him, the greeting was almost always the same. “How are you master?” was a phrase as familiar as the intense stare and passionate conversation that followed.
If rugby was the topic, Mac was the master for sure. He was a student of the game long before it became fashionable to be a student of rugby and his sharp tactical brain was the envy of many.
Most of today’s generation of coaches, and certainly those of a slightly older vintage such as Jake White, Swys de Bruyn and Johan Ackermann were disciples of the simple, yet brutal style of rugby Mac demanded.
He believed in direct confrontation of forwards, or even backline players, taking the space in front of them to suck in opposing defenders. He might have even coined the phrase, “earning the right to go wide.”
His best Sharks teams had no shortage of great try-scorers out wide — think of James Small, Andre Joubert and Tony Watson, but all the work was underpinned by dominant and skilful forwards, great set piece and halfbacks who would also challenge the gain line.
That was a fundamental shift in thinking in the late 80s and early 90s, although it’s commonplace today.
His Sharks teams won four Currie Cups in the 1990s — 1990, ‘92, ’95 and ’96 and were called the “team of the 90s”, although that might have some good spin by the Durban-based franchise’s marketing department.
There was no doubt though, that the Sharks with Mac at the helm, became one of the leading unions in world rugby. Under McIntosh players such as Mark Andrews, Gary Teichmann, Joubert, Pieter Muller, Henry Honiball, Joel Stransky and many more went from good, to great.
His team perhaps reached its peak in 1996 when the Sharks made the final of Super 12 that year. They were up against the mighty Auckland side, which contained 12 All Blacks including Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Michael Jones, Robin Brooke, Zinzan Brooke, Carlos Spencer and the brilliant Joeli Vidiri and Jonah Lomu on the wings.
It was a formidable task, especially as the Sharks had a tough semi-final against the Reds in Brisbane and then had to fly to New Zealand for the final.
Current Bulls coach Jake White tells a great story about that campaign. White and Mac were close, with the latter serving as White’s Bok selector throughout his tenure as national coach from 2004-2007.
“As a reward for winning the semi-final the Sharks Rugby Union gave the players a nice bonus,” White recalled to Daily Maverick. “So, on the way to New Zealand for the final, Mac, wanted to gauge his team’s confidence for the battle against that great Auckland side.
“Mac asked: ‘Guys, are you confident we can beat Auckland?’. ‘Yes coach, we are,’ they all replied. So Mac, with a straight face says to them, ‘well boys, the odds are about 4-1 against us winning, so let’s bet all that bonus money on us winning so we can triple the loot.’ The players were suddenly not so confident and declined,” White said with a laugh.
It was a wise move as the Sharks put up a brave fight but lost 45-21.
South Africa’s readmission into world sport in the early ‘90s needed forward-thinking coaches after years of isolation. Instead, SA Rugby’s hierarchy at the time turned to veteran Bulls mentor John Williams initially.
Former Bok coach Peter de Villiers paid tribute:
The saddest news to wake up to this morning with the passing of Ian McIntosh.
You’ll be sadly missed Mac, Rugby became poorer this morning. pic.twitter.com/SF3iCH9orr
— Peter de Villiers (@CoachPdV) April 5, 2023
Williams had been successful at provincial level, but he was from an older school of coaching with a more conservative approach. He relied on a solid set piece and a flyhalf in Naas Botha to play for position. It wasn’t a bad ploy because the Boks had formidable forwards, even then, and Botha, despite approaching his mid-30s, was still a genius.
But there was very little dynamism to the team and they struggled, losing four of their five Tests after readmission in 1992. The Boks did play the world champion Wallabies, the All Blacks, and leading European sides France and England, so there was mitigation, but they needed more.
McIntosh, whose Sharks had just captured their second Currie Cup title in 1992, when the competition was still the pinnacle of domestic rugby, succeeded Williams.
But even then it was by default because Gerrie Sonnekus was initially appointed Bok coach but resigned without overseeing a match, leaving McIntosh to pick up the pieces. With only a few weeks before a two-Test home series against France followed by a three-Test tour to Australia, who were world champions at the time, it was a demanding schedule.
Bryan Habana paid tribute:
RIP Master 💔💔
Mr Ian Mac was a truly remarkable man, mentor, coach, husband, father and human being 😔
His passion and dedication to the game of the rugby was beyond measure!!
His love for life and humour made a positive impact to all those who got the privilege to meet him.… pic.twitter.com/wI4QaPNf3u
— Bryan Habana (@BryanHabana) April 5, 2023
Against France, McIntosh’ Boks drew the first Test 20-20 and lost the second 18-17 to lose the series. He was immediately under pressure despite having no time to impose his Sharks’ blueprint on the Boks.
The Boks shocked the world by winning the first Test in 19-12 in Sydney — which still remains the last time the Springboks have won in the New South Wales city. James Small scored two tries and the signs were there of Mac’s method taking shape.
But Small was red-carded in the second Test in Brisbane and Australia levelled the series with a 28-20 win. The home side took the third Test 19-12 back in Sydney and the series was lost. But it could have been so different had it not been for the red card.
SA Rugby boss at the time Louis Luyt was an impatient man and it was clear that Mac had not been his first choice. There was also an arrogance at SA Rugby in that era that the Boks should be world beaters despite years of isolation. The reality was they had fallen behind and needed time and innovation to catch up.
McIntosh started laying the groundwork and two comfortable wins over Argentina at the end of the season suggested that the following year — 1994 — might yield some success.
England toured and the first Test at Loftus was the only time that a McIntosh Bok team was outplayed. The Boks were flat having not played a Test for seven months and went down 32-15.
The pressure mounted for Mac again. The following week, Mark Andrews made a sensational Test debut and the Boks won 27-9 at Newlands to level the series and head to New Zealand for a three-Test tour with some confidence.
Again though, consecutive three-Test series against the two best teams in the world, in their first two full seasons back in international rugby, was an impossible task.
The Boks narrowly lost the All Blacks series 2-0, losing the first Test 22-14 in Dunedin and the second 13-9 in Wellington. They salvaged an 18-18 draw in Auckland, but it was to be Mac’s last Test in charge. Luyt unceremoniously axed the coach and turned to Kitch Christie to lead the Boks to Rugby World Cup 1995.
We’ll never know if Mac’s Bok would’ve won the 1995 World Cup, but the Boks did win it, and Christie built on Mac’s foundation, (he made Francois Pienaar captain on debut in 1994), and his style of play.
Apart from coaching the Springboks, Mac also coached the Springbok Sevens team in 2003 — the only man who was head coach of both of South Africa’s senior national men’s rugby teams.
After his coaching days came to an end, McIntosh was a Springbok selector for 13 years, providing mentorship and advice to a number of national coaches on junior and senior level, and he stayed involved in the game through the South African Rugby Legends Association (Sarla).
“His piercing stare and intense personality underlined his determination to succeed, but a glint in his eye marked him as a man of the people,” President of the Kwa-Zulu-Natal Rugby Union Brian van Zyl said.
“His players respected him, but they also loved him and would do anything for him. His proud and celebrated legacy will continue for years to come.”
When he retired as Sharks coach at the end of the 1999 season, his passion for the sport kept him involved in rugby and he spent many years with the South African Rugby Legends, coaching the team of former Springboks as well as rugby clinics in disadvantaged areas.
In 2013, World Rugby awarded the Vernon Pugh Award for Distinguished Service to McIntosh, for his outstanding service to coaching and management.
In 2021, his legacy at The Sharks was honoured when the main entrance to the stadium was renamed the Ian McIntosh Gate.
“‘Mac’ left an indelible mark on the global rugby landscape, but even more so in South Africa and with his beloved Sharks,” SA Rugby president Mark Alexander said.
“He was an intensely passionate rugby man through and through, someone who never stopped learning, coaching, educating and giving back.
“He will be remembered as Springbok and Sharks coach, who plotted the unthinkable in 1990 when the ‘Banana Boys’ beat the mighty Bulls in the Currie Cup final in Pretoria, but later in his life, along with Sarla, ‘Mac’ did magnificent work in uplifting the less fortunate, using rugby as a tool to bring smiles to the faces of thousands of children through the years.
“’Mac’ never stopped working and believed in giving back to the game that he loved so much. As South African rugby, we owe him so much gratitude for what he’s done, and we honour him for the role he played in the game, both here and internationally.
“We are thinking of Rhona, his wife of almost 60 years, and their three sons, Ross, Craig and Evan, as well as the rest of the McIntosh family, friends and other loved ones in this very difficult time. May you find solace in the memories of a man who will forever be remembered as a pioneer in rugby and whose influence stretched over generations.
“Rest in peace, Master.” DM