Axing coaches doesn’t fix problem

Craig Ray

At the recent announcement of SA Rugby’s new player contracting model, which is essentially aimed at keeping the middle tier of player in the country, one aspect of rugby’s future was glossed over. Coaching development and pathways.

Losing players at an alarming rate is a huge problem for SA. But if there is one issue more pressing, it’s the amount of coaching capital flowing out of the country.

The Hurricanes were a whisker away from becoming the first team in history to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch in a play-off game last week. They’re coached by John Plumtree, who learned and developed his craft in SA for more than a decade.

Johan van Graan is doing impressive work at Munster, Johan Ackermann has turned Gloucester into potential English champions, Gary Gold is coaching the USA with great success and Dave Wessels is doing an admirable job at the Melbourne Rebels with scarce resources.

They range in age from 37 (Wessels) to 51 (Gold) and none are involved in the SA game anymore.

In the coming weeks Franco Smith is off to coach Italy and Robbie Fleck will be surfing in Bali as he ponders his next move post Stormers. Jake White and Heyneke Meyer are coaching clubs in Japan and France respectively.

Add others such as the wily Alan Solomons, who is director of rugby at Worcester where Omar Mouneimne is the defence coach and it’s obvious SA has lost a minibus full of coaching talent.

I know there will be guffawing at the idea that Smith and Fleck are somehow great coaches, but this issue is broader than that.

Fleck has spent four years as a Super Rugby head coach. Thrown into the job without the right experience and pedigree, or without mentorship, he managed to just about survive. His winning ratio of 51% over four years is nearly on par with the lauded Swys de Bruyn’s 54% winning ratio over two seasons with the Lions.

The Stormers’ lack of success can easily be blamed on Fleck but so much more has been at play in Cape Town over the period he was at the helm of Cape Town’s flagship rugby team. And now, with all that hard-earned intellectual capital that could be used locally, he is likely to resurface as a coach in a foreign land.

Another loss to SA coaching, Smith’s taken on the Italy job which is a much more glittering assignment than the Cheetahs.

And what about Robert du Preez, by all accounts the most loathed rugby coach in SA? His Sharks have under-performed, and like Fleck, he is on his way out – less for his results and more for his personality clashes with players and Sharks management.

He was a successful Varsity Cup coach given a job above his station when the Sharks appointed him. He has made many mistakes in the last three years but he didn’t appoint himself.

And when the Sharks eventually show him the door it will mark the fourth head coaching change since Plumtree’s departure in 2013. What kind of succession planning is that?

Former Blitzboks coach Paul Treu may be a controversial figure but he is out of the coaching frame for the time being while Vuyo Zangqa had to achieve success with the German national sevens team before making a return to SA.

We can’t talk seriously about player development if there is no coaching development and no distinct coaching plan.

Fleck was not properly mentored and now he won’t be around to mentor another young SA coach. Treu became a frustrated figure at the Stormers because there was no clear career path carved out for him to pursue.

Both are too young to be lost to the SA system, especially considering the amount of time invested in their development.

Hiring and firing coaches is easy. But until there is patience and planning around a coach, SA teams will continue to flounder as typically, a young, inexperienced coach shoulders the blame for a massive systemic failure.

- Craig Ray

Let's chat

  • Barry

    Not much to argue here Craig, our administrators remain semi-professional, at best!

    Advancing coaches beyond their capabilities has a negative impact for both parties, but we seem not to learn from this. How many administrators know what psychometric testing is, let alone use it as a selection tool?

    The fix needs to start with SA Rugby, with a total split between amateur and professional – not different divisions, rather different organizations! These structures cascade down into the Provinces where we see amateur tails wagging professional dogs!

    The increase in allowable equity holding in franchises would also help – investor will insist on sound business governance, and results and profitability as business imperatives!

    Though we have lost many a good man overseas, we still have many at home, we just seem to have the knack of not finding them, with great regularity! Not indifferent to our player selection policies really!

  • Herman

    Craig, your defence of Fleck is hopelessly flawed old chap. Likewise Du Preez. You seem to forget that Fleck spent, I think it was eight years, as assistant coach to Alistair Coetzee. Mind you that probably didn’t help him too much because Alistair was just as woeful as a head coach. If anything Fleck had a chance to see first hand how a coach shouldn’t do the job but instead he became a Coetzee clone with the same disastrous results.

    The problem is most of the coaches mentioned come from the outdated era of conservative rugby and do not have the skill or rugby nous to coach the more intricate modern game. Unfortunately Rassie falls into this category as well going by his failed first year in 2018. Expect more of the same this year.

    Your cheap shot at Swys is not appreciated and shows some bias on your part. Drawing comparisons to make a point should be based on facts my friend. Taking a four year stint and comparing it to a two year stint is disingenuous. Flecks last two years had the Stormers finish tenth on the SR log. The Lions contested the FINAL last year despite the loss of Ackerman. This year the Stormers finished tenth again with Lions ninth and but for that burgle at Newlands in the derby game would have in fact qualified comfortably for the playoffs.

    The Lions also beat seven overseas teams in ten matches this year including two NZ teams and the Jags twice as well. No other SA franchise managed that. Derby games were quite frankly c..p vs c..p. and the Bulls took advantage of that. They never beat a NZ team and only won three games against overseas teams in eleven matches. The result in the Quarter finals proof enough. I do however admit that the Bulls have been the most improved side this year but of course like the Lions this year will have to start building from scratch next year and good luck to them.

    The fact is Fleck has had four years to weld his host of ‘Boks’ into a formidable unit and has failed miserably. Swys on the other hand had to start from scratch in the early part of this year where they lost a few derby games with a bunch of greenhorns. Last year Swys beat the Jags and Waratahs in the playoffs to get to the final. I could go on but I think I made my point.

    Sum total is that the coaching relics of the past like Fleck and Du Preez must be consigned to history as soon as possible or we will continue to lag the world as we’ve been doing since 2009. Take your cue from the Jags, that is what I’m talking about. A perfectly balanced game of attacking rugby with a sound defence backed up by smart skilled rugby players all over the park. We can’t even manage that with our Bok team. Sad but true.

    Please don’t take this as a personal attack on Fleck, I’m pretty sure he is a nice enough guy but he should steer clear of coaching at the top level, we all have our limitations. A professional surfer in Bali could be a way to kick start a new career for him and I wish him well. Cheers.

    • Barry

      Sorry Hermie I’m with Craig on the Swys comparative.

      The point he makes is rather that one guy is getting fired with a 50% success rate whilst the other is invited to coach the Boks!! A little bizarre really!

      You talk about Erasmus’ style, well you’re surely aware that he had Swys as his attack expert in 2018? The year when our attack on EOYT was virtually non-existent!

      Let’s not try and hide behind player loss as an excuse – most of the Stormers Boks were in cruise mode this year, the Sharks played most of their season with fourth and fifth choice hookers and third choice tight head. The Bulls similarly had Lood out the whole season and were handicapped by having to play Brits!! We all had our problems!

      What about some constructive input on how we fix the Coaching issue?

      • Herman

        Quite easy to counter your post here Barry. You conveniently forget Swys was at the forefront during the Lions total domination of SA rugby since 2016 playing sublime attacking rugby. You either have those skills or you don’t, he had it in chunks. Fleck and Du Preez the total opposite.

        Then Swys gets seconded to a dom krag orientated team of Boks under equally conservative head coach Rassie Erasmus. The backline players given to him at the Boks were mostly schooled at the conservative minded Franchises and Swys at short notice was supposed to imbue these players with skills and rugby nous they clearly did not possess not having played it at their own Franchises ? The poor Bok record these past few years merely confirms this and not and cannot be placed at Swys’s door as you indicated.

        The head coach calls the shots with regard to the game plan and if you want to bring up the EOYT then what about the forwards not providing decent ball for the backs to use even as unskilled as they were ? It’s laughable that you bring up the other Franchises who had certain challenges this year but ignore the fact that the Lions had the worst of it with real star player losses etc. You’re cherry picking my friend.

        As for the Stormers Boks coasting this year, well if they did so they should be ashamed of themselves and for you to bring that up as an excuse makes me believe you are running out of excuses. The Bulls lose Lood and that’s an argument for their iffy season ? You can do better Barry.

        As for constructive input well lets just say that it’s difficult to do that when SA rugby is like the Titanic’s captain trying to seal the hole in the ship with duct tape. The Boks are on a hiding to nothing but then again I’ve been saying that since 2014 although it actually started in 2009. In the current politically charged environment coupled with inferior coaching and a pool of unskilled individuals ( mostly ) playing a brain dead game plan and it’s clear these entire structures need to be completely dumped before healing can begin.

        The fishes head is dead old chap and you know it as well as I do. All I can say is that all my criticism should be taking as a positive because to ignore the repeated failures of the past is tantamount to endorsing the status quo and we all know what a disaster that has been. Enough said. Cheers.

  • John Comyn

    I think in fairness the WP board did, together with Smal, secure Eddie Jones. Smal was also on the verge of signing John Mitchell until The Lions decided to take revenge. That said I don’t think Jones would have lasted a year before telling the board to take a hike – ditto Mitchell. It also has to be said Fleckie was sent overseas in the off season to meet and learn from pro coaches in the UK and down under. It now turns out that Dobson and a few senior players are at loggerheads with the board around contract negotiations being changed and Dobbo has not even started. White also had to put up with BS from players and suits at The Sharks.

    • Herman

      That Mitchell ‘revenge’ angle is a bit lame old chap. The fact is Mitchell left the Lions SEVEN years ago and since then has been globe trotting, coaching team after team with hardly any results. Fall outs with his employers a common enough theme. Read it all on Wikipedia. His SR record was also piss poor at the Lions. Funnily enough three years after he left the Lions entered their ‘golden years’ stretch with some even laughably claiming it was Mitchells influence. Some influence some record.

      The Lions were a genuine home grown team of rejects coached by the best coaches in SA by a country mile and playing real rugby. The only excuse you can offer is Mitchell being sidetracked due to the Lions bad mouthing him to Wakefield and Co. Please, there were many other factors that contributed to his not getting the job of which you must be fully aware. The one theory was that Mitchell was so good that the Lions feared him taking over the Stormers job. History has definitely proved otherwise. Cheers.

  • boyo

    What is a fair shot for a coach before a union says its isnt working?

    Fleck- 4 years
    Du Preez- 3 Years

    I wouldn’t say the decision to get rid of either is a knee jerk reaction. Yes management appoints them but to be fair do we have the money to get seasoned experienced coaches in?

    I would say that both had a fair shot and didnt perform. Du Preez coached at club, varsity and provincial level( leopards) so the next logical step was to super rugby. Nex

    • John Comyn

      I’m convinced the biggest problem we have is the mental aspect of the game. All the sides lack consistency. We’ve seen this right through SR this year. To do well you have to be at your best for every game. You have to win your home games and a decent percentage of the away games. We proved this season we can beat NZ sides home and away. One week they play sublime rugby and we supporters think our side is on the right track and the next week they are crap! One could say it’s the coaches job to get his players up for the game week in and week out but I’m not sure it’s possible. Are all our coaches bad man managers? I think it is endemic in our culture because our youth are not taught how to win. Let’s not mention the word “cricket”.

      • boyo

        Certainly the motivation to perform consistently seems to be lacking but It is also as a result of the game plans that require a great amount of physical domination which is difficult to sustain weekly.

        Both can be addressed by a good head coach.

    • Barry

      Boyo, I think that your chain of career progress for Du Preez reiterated the problem with our selection processes.

      Quite simply we need employment processes that measure the candidates potential to perform at the next level. Just assuming he/she will perform well at a higher level is exactly where we go wrong! On face value, we have no way of understanding where candidates are in their scale if potential. For example, are they at their maximum potential and would sink at the next level? Or do they have loads of scope and are over due a move up? We need specialist in the field to measure these things for us- without this we are just guessing!

      Psychometric evaluation also highlights potential pitfalls – stubbornness/inflexibility/person-ability/ strategic ability/dynamism and so on. It doesn’t necessarily discount the individual from the appointment, but gives the employer a chance to support the candidate in areas that need help!

      It is no different for managers in the work place or players for that matter – we need to be more professional in the way we go about this!

      • boyo

        A psychometric is a great idea because In my view both Du Preez and Fleck dont strike me as having the personalities suited to management for very different reasons.

        Yip it would be great to have a more scientific way to predict future performance and capacity but until there is on success at lower levels is all we have until we can spend the money on coaches with success at higher levels.

  • Chris

    Posted this youtube vid on here before. The guy does a pretty good job of analyzing the difference in the way SA teams appoint coaches compared to NZ.
    The biggest takeaway for me is how they seem to value previous results (silverware) above whether a coach was a good player or what team he was at before. Doesn’t matter that much at what level you get results. The ones that win or improve teams move up the system.

    https://youtu.be/WNVX7jqDBMI

  • Dries Potgieter

    Frans Ludeke spent 2 years at SWD, 6 years at the Lions/Cats and 8 years at the Bulls and in between he also coached the SA under 19 side. He won the Vodacom Cup (Lions), Currie Cup (Blue Bulls) and 2x Super Rugby titles (Bulls). To date no local player has ever spoken a negative word about him. In fact, the opposite is true. However, he was treated like rubbish by supporters who did not have the insight to realize that the Bulls’ were on other levels than the coach… Today, players from South Africa are lining up in eagerness to play for his team in Japan.

    • boyo

      Ludeke gets a very raw deal from Bulls fans in particular.

  • Dean Bright

    The system in NZ is brilliant in that they never throw coaching and IP away. It’s also shared. In SA it’s every man for himself. Think about Wayne Smith, unsuccessful as All Blacks head coach, then 4 years later they bring him back as assistant coach. He goes on to become one of their most important coaches in history. Warren Gatland is returning there next year. Plumtree was invited back after being mildly successful in SA for several years. There really aren’t many who return to SA or offered a gig in any capacity after being discarded. New coaches can learn and gather info from guys who weren’t necessarily successful. Also, there should be opportunities to become an assistant, advisor or administrator for previous head coaches. There are guys who can bring through the next generation otherwise it’s a turbine that spits out even the most promising coaches. When Robert du Preez, Swys and Fleck started there was a lot of positivity surrounding their selections. I’m sure Heyneke, Allister Coetzee and PDV can offer a lot of insight into Bok rugby.

    • Herman

      Dean, Swys should not be mentioned in the same sentence as R du Preez and Fleck, it’s an abomination. You simply can’t compare their track records. Until we get coaches from overseas with the skill and nous to coach real rugby we will continue to suck hind tit. We have enough talented rough diamonds in this country who will thrive on intelligent coaching and the Franchises must buy into it as well.

      Funnily enough I have a soft spot for PDV who beat NZ 5 times in 11 outings but HM and AC have nothing to offer imo. We need to shrug off all vestiges of the past, dump the ox wagons and buy a few Ferrari’s.Cheers.

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