It is no secret that the Springboks have struggled to find form recently, conceding one record loss after another just when they looked to be improving.
Many fans may have been left wondering if this is a new era of decline for the Springboks, and would be forgiven for thinking this is unusual and unprecedented for Springbok rugby.
However, the current period of inconsistent performance has many precedents in modern Springbok history. The current phase is not entirely dissimilar to the results of 2002 to 2006.
The 4-year period in question included a 52-16 defeat to the All Blacks in July 2003, a 53-3 loss to England and, one I saw in person, 49-0 to Australia in Brisbane in 2006.
All these record defeats where preceded and followed by successes or improvements against the same (or other) tier one teams. Eventually, the successful Springboks were back, winning the World Cup in 2007 and Tri-Nations in 2009. The player group with the eventual success was not too dissimilar from 2002/2003 teams and very similar group to 2006 of course.
So how have the Springboks once again found themselves in almost the same position again?
In the book Springbok Coaches by Gavin Rich (Rich, 2016), Rich interviews and considers the coaches since 1992. From reading this book, I had the impression that there seems to be a recurring theme and cycle of what goes right and wrong for the Springboks.
The coaches are under immense pressure to win from day one.
Whether experienced at international level or not, they don’t often get to choose their support staff and must transform the racial makeup of the team according to government requirements. These pressures lead to coaches having to take responsibility for results that are not entirely within their control. Although, in fairness, they largely know the parameters when they take on the job.
2002 – 2006
The Springbok teams from 2002 through to 2006, were also a group of players that were largely inexperienced. They, therefore, lacked the opportunity to learn from experienced players or coaches.
It may be that with the admin issues and selection pressures mentioned above, SARU has largely been unable to create a transfer of coaching and player knowledge. They seem to have a cycle of building a champion team, play them until they’re out of form, and then start to rebuild again with a new coach (or coaches) and players.
This cyclical process seems to provide good performances mixed with horrendous performances for a few years as they find their feet and gain that all-important international experience.
As a solution moving forward I am not sure changing the coach will help.
We need SARU to give the coach autonomy in selection. He already knows the transformation target to aim for but let’s not force it. Let the coach reach the target through keeping it in mind for his long-term planning whilst coaching for performance.
Give the coach all the resources that are necessary. This includes staff in specialist areas; skills coaches, sports psychologists, scrum coaches, attack coaches and obviously assistant coaches. Aim for cohesive conditioning standards across unions (already set in place by Allister). Evaluate the coach not on individual matches but allow him time to make changes, learn and improve. Just make sure the trend is up.
Have him work with his assistant coaches and choose the next coach from them or have a handover period for when the coaches change. Much the same way the All Blacks have been functioning since the 2003 World Cup. This way it may help the rebuilding cycle to be shorter and hopefully less severe.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Laurie Mains. “Coaching is about learning from your mistakes, and unfortunately, in South Africa, no one gets a chance to do that.” (Rich, 2016)
Rich, G. (2016). The Springbok Coaches. Cape Town: Zebra Press.
Author: Wouter Joubert
I was born in South Africa and I am currently a Physiotherapist in Australia.
I’m passionate about sport and in particular rugby union. I have been following Springbok rugby for as long as I can remember, and now also share support for the Wallabies. Though I do enjoy watching any rugby available.