Sport

RUGBY REVOLUTIONS

Boks set to soar to even greater heights with coaching shake-up

Boks set to soar to even greater heights with coaching shake-up
Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

New coaching blood should refresh the Springbok coaching set-up in 2024 and beyond.

Two exciting additions to the Springbok coaching staff – and particularly the input of Tony Brown, one of the sharpest coaches in the game – could accelerate the South African rugby evolution over the next four years.

If all goes to plan, the Boks may unlock their attacking potential and claim a third successive title at the 2027 World Cup in Australia.

It’s been more than three months since Siya Kolisi lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris. Since then, Rassie Erasmus has committed to South African rugby for the foreseeable future, as director of rugby and as a head coach replacement for Jacques Nienaber – who has taken up a senior position with the European club powerhouse Leinster.

Assistant coach Felix Jones has joined the England management team and, until now, there’s been no news regarding his successor at the Boks.

The rest of the Bok coaching team will push through to the 2027 World Cup. Senior assistant Mzwandile Stick has been with this particular Bok group since 2018, whereas Deon Davids (forwards), Daan Human (scrum) and Andy Edwards (head of athletic performance) joined in 2020. The management group, like the Bok team, has evolved over the past six years, and evidently there is room for growth over the course of the next four-year cycle.

Bok Brown

Several reports in New Zealand have made Brown the frontrunner for the attack coach position. The former All Black flyhalf’s relationship with Erasmus stretches back more than two decades.

Brown played 18 Tests for the All Blacks between 1999 and 2001. Towards the end of his provincial career he enjoyed short stints with the Sharks and the Stormers.

Boks

Highlanders head coach Tony Brown at warm-up before a Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinal against the Blues at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, on 4 June 2022. (Photo: Fiona Goodall / Getty Images)

Erasmus took charge of the Cape franchise in 2008, and was responsible for bringing the New Zealander to the Mother City. The 2008 season was a watershed campaign for the Stormers as they laid a foundation for a team that made the Super Rugby final in 2010.

Erasmus received due credit for reviving the franchise, and senior backline players such as Jean de Villiers and Peter Grant hailed Brown for thinking outside the box and challenging perceptions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Genius of Rassie Erasmus lies in taking South African rugby where it has never been before

Although Brown played seven games for the Stormers and left after one season, his impact on the players and coaches was profound. They continued to give him credit in the ensuing years, as they developed their attack and eventually qualified for their first Super Rugby final. Later, Brown moved into coaching, first at club and then at Test level, in Japan.

Erasmus and Brown’s paths crossed again in 2019, after the former had become Bok coach and the latter had taken charge of the Brave Blossoms’ attack. South Africa beat Japan 41-7 in a World Cup warm-up match, but in the aftermath, Erasmus name-checked Brown and boldly predicted that Japan would advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.

As it happened, Japan topped their pool – beating Ireland and Scotland in the process – and met the Boks in the playoffs. South Africa went on to win that quarterfinal, but again, the coaches were impressed with Brown’s attacking innovations.

Evolution of a coaching team

Erasmus took steps to bolster the Bok management team shortly after South Africa won the 2019 World Cup. When Matt Proudfoot headed to England, Erasmus recruited two forwards specialists in Davids and Human. Stick continued in his wide-ranging role, and Jones was given more responsibility in the wake of Nienaber’s promotion to head coach.

Curiously, Erasmus failed to appoint a specialist attack coach for the next four-year cycle. Johann van Graan had fulfilled the role under previous coaches Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee, and Swys de Bruin had served under Erasmus in 2018 and the early part of 2019 before stepping back.

The financial implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the fact that the Boks did not play for the entire 2020 Test season, may have influenced the decision to limit recruitment and essentially the long-term development of the team’s game plan.

Whatever the case, the opportunity to secure Erasmus’s dream appointment and boost South Africa’s attack has finally arrived.

Boks

Harlequins lineout and defence coach Jerry Flannery looks on before a European Rugby Challenge Cup match against Ulster Rugby at The Stoop in London on 4 April 2021. (Photo: Steve Bardens / Getty Images for Harlequins)

Although there have been rumours of Crusaders boss Scott Robertson and All Blacks coaching legend Wayne Smith joining the Bok coaching staff in recent years, the recruitment of Brown makes far more sense – given his existing relationship with Erasmus as well as his history with South African teams.

These are exciting times for South African rugby. The Springboks are not content to rest on their laurels after securing back-to-back World Cup titles, and Erasmus is actively seeking new ideas with the aim of amplifying the team’s potency and improving their overall record.

The Boks have made it clear that they want to be more consistent between global tournaments.

Japan coach Tony Brown before their World Cup match against Chile at Stadium de Toulouse in Toulouse, France, on 10 September 2023. (Photo: Catherine Ivill / Getty Images)

Defence into attack

Indeed, the push to secure Harlequins assistant coach Jerry Flannery for a defensive role should be seen as another step in the right direction.

There has been talk about two-time World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen moving straight into that position, and about Nienaber himself returning to the Boks in 2027 after his Leinster contract has expired. At this point, Flannery – who worked under Erasmus and Nienaber at Munster in 2016 and 2017 – is the favourite to join the coaching ranks.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sports Team of the Year: The Boks are the bold, gutsy conquerors of the world

The news has raised a few eyebrows, as Flannery has served at Harlequins – one of the most attack-minded clubs in Europe – for the past five seasons. The reality, as Flannery himself has pointed out, is that a successful attack often stems from an offensive defence.

As a self-confessed Nienaber disciple, the former Ireland hooker has borrowed a few defensive strategies from his South African mentor and implemented them in Harlequins’ approach. His philosophy is aligned with that of Erasmus, and he may also add something different coming from a European club.

What’s more, it won’t hurt to have another Irishman on board ahead of the Boks’ crucial two-Test series against Ireland this July.

Outside that series, the Springboks’ most important assignment in 2024 is a two-game showdown with the All Blacks on South African soil.

Brown’s insight into New Zealand rugby may well give the Boks the edge they need to claim that elusive Freedom Cup title, as well as the Rugby Championship trophy. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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