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Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best Springbok coach of all?


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

With the debacle of the Rugby World Cup speeding away in our rear-view mirror, we turn our focus to who the next Bok coach should be, and who it’s likely to be.

The question is ironic, when it shouldn’t be. Who is the best coach of all? The irony transpires by virtue of the fact that the last three times the position of Springbok coach was advertised, the position wasn’t filled by best available coach.

From “Kamp Staaldraad” Straeuli to Jake White and Peter de Villiers, the South African Rugby Union managed to appoint a head coach that wasn’t the best candidate on offer. With no Super Rugby head coaching experience between them, better-qualified contenders were overlooked, for whatever reasons the administrators of the time deemed fit.

With P Divvy having declared his desire to discontinue his hate-hate relationship with the South African rugby media come January 2012, the opportunity arises to gaze into the magic iMaverick crystal ball and offer some insight into who will wear the thorniest crown in world rugby.

Around about now, those coaches with a shot at the title are playing the media game, balancing their commitments to their contracted unions with their desire to be Bok coach. Which is why you’ll see aspirants publicly deny or feign disinterest in the role, in order to keep them in the good books of their provincial employers should their bids be unsuccessful. Those without provincial paychecks, like current assistant coach Gary Gold, are less subtle about their head coach aspirations.

It’s not difficult to draw up a list of likely candidates. Alistair Coetzee and Rassie Erasmus were names many pundits began whispering following the undignified exit of the team from RWC ’11. Coetzee, the current head coach of Western Province and the Stormers, spent four years aside Jake White, earning himself a World Cup winners medal in the process.

He was also White’s pick as successor when it became clear the head coach had to be, er, less white. Since then Coetzee has done reasonably well, with his charges getting to Currie Cup and Super Rugby finals and semi-finals, although the lack of silverware would count against the man who coaches a team laden with so many Springboks. Not too many would bemoan the inclusion of Coetzee in the coaching set-up again, although one feels he would need really strong assistant coaches to in order to achieve the results Bok fans demand.

Erasmus, a former Springbok flanker and wily coach who showed great ingenuity to signal messages to his players from stadium rooftops, is another candidate who could be considered a “sensible” choice. Having led a revival of Cheetah’s rugby, a union raped and pillaged of its rugby talent by the more profitable cousins, Erasmus extended his on field prowess to sidelines without fuss or fiasco.  As a good Afrikaans “boytjie”, Erasmus would warm the hearts of many Toyota driving fans north of the Jukskei or west of Kroonstad. His dislike of media duties will count against him, seeing as this is a rather large part of the Bok coach’s duties, but it would be a sad day when media skills become the deciding factor in the appointment of the Springbok coach. Besides, I’m sure P Divvy would be free to offer his media consulting skills with all the free time on his hands.

Under Gold, the Bok team, when blessed with enough uninjured players, had a formidable pack, that scrummed well and more often than not, dominated lineout exchanges. The team even competed admirably at the breakdown, when the laws of rugby were actually applied. Having earned his coaching stripes in the English leagues, Gold has been an important figure in the coaching set-up over the last four years, which will stand him in good stead when candidates have to present their case to the Saru board.

While all credible candidates, I’d like to see Saru engage the right side of their brain. An out-of-the-box and outspoken option is former World Cup winner and current Saracens technical director of rugby, Brendan Venter. During his coaching tenure in England, first with London Irish and subsequently with Saracens, each club has prospered, winning silverware and reaching new heights under his guidance.

Saracens, with its plethora of South African imports, hover near or at the top of the Premiership table, whilst performing admirably in the Heineken Cup. Venter has taken two teams languishing in the bottom half of the table to the top of English rugby. Imagine what he could do with the talented team of Springboks at his disposal. And unlike his former teammate Erasmus, Venter has no problems handling the media, as evident in this Heineken Cup post-match interview:


Venter would certainly make for an interesting coach, and having spent almost ten years away from SA rugby, would be free of the provincial and racial prejudices that sometimes sway selections.

But my choice for Springbok coach requires more swallowing of pride than right-side-brain thinking. The pride that needs to be swallowed is that misguided notion that the head coach of the Springboks should be a South African. In an era of professional sport, we shouldn’t let old-school thinking get in the way of progress. If India, the most fanatic of all cricketing countries, can accept Australian, South African and Zimbabwean coaches of better pedigree than their own, surely South African rugby can accept a foreign coach with the appropriate curriculum vitae. Yet we don’t have to venture too far to find a foreign coach that has already endeared himself to the South African rugby public.

John Mitchell, the main conjurer of the incredible reappearing Lions magic act, has spent the last two years moulding a group of dejected rugby players into Currie Cup winners. No mean feat, given the Lions were breaking all the wrong kind of records when he took over the coaching duties from Dick Muir. Like Venter, Mitchell sparked a rugby fortune comeback that rivals that of the Queensland Reds, given the short space of time it was accomplished in and the lack of Springbok personnel accomplished with. A former All Black, English Premiership and World Cup coach, Mitchell has the coaching lineage to progress his career back onto the international stage. For every rugby coach, the pinnacle is international rugby, and for a Kiwi, the next best job after the All Blacks position has to be that of marshalling the Boks into battle.

The Lions, without the services of any Springboks in their starting line-up, showed the Bok laden teams of the Western Province and the Sharks what a well-coached and supremely fit side can achieve after two hard-slogging years of the right mentorship. It speaks volumes for a coach’s ability that a team of less talented individuals can overcome star-studded opponents on consecutive weekends in the finals of the Currie Cup.

And for all his on-field accomplishments in the domestic game, Mitchell is as likely to accepted by the public as Bok coach for an off the field incident that could have cut his time in South Africa short. When John Mitchell was stabbed in his Jo’burg home in October last year, the logically reaction would be to pack up head back to New Zealand. Instead he decided to make a stand against the perils of a notoriously violent city and in so doing, endeared himself to the South African public that has endured the same injustices for years. At the time, I remember thinking that if and when he is appointed Bok coach, his decision to stay in South Africa after the incident would play a big role in the public acceptance of the first foreign coach. A very sad indictment on the state of South Africa’s crime levels, and the average rugby fans thinking.

I certainly hope Oregan Hoskins and co. take their brain boosting energy drinks the day hopefuls are interviewed for the job. Give the best coach the job to lead this team of incredibly talented players so that we can dominate world rugby for the next four years and then reclaim the World Cup. Lets inject some fresh style and thinking into a pool of hardened and gifted players, and watch the world look at us in awe. We’re naïve to think the best available coach in the world has to be a South African.

And here’s a simple coaching stat to prove my point: five of the six coaches involved in the semi-finals of the World Cup and final of the Currie Cup were New Zealanders. Coincidence? This mirror on the wall thinks not. DM


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