Following the biggest defeat in Springbok history everyone wants to know how that happened. The answer is, it’s been coming for some time.
Over the past four years we’ve won 24 of 43 matches and have suffered historic losses against Japan, Argentina, Italy and Wales. Like it or not, that’s where it started because if players play in a team that’s losing to those sorts of countries, the juniors at the coalface of those defeats never forget them.
When I coached at Jeppe High School, we used to play a local derby against KES once every season, and inevitably what would happen is that one school would have the edge on the other school. You could have a crackerjack side, and everyone thought this was going to be the year, and then the derby is your worst performance of the season and, after winning 21 of 23 matches, that loss is the one everyone remembers.
Then one year it was decided that there weren’t enough fixtures in the season among the big, boy schools so, instead of playing weaker schools, we started playing the bigger schools twice every season. That was a turning point for us.
After losing the first one against KES, we won the return match and when we beat them it was like the monkey was off our back.
Under the old schedule, that first loss would have meant that every matric boy in the team would never have got another crack at them, they would have had to live with their KES rivals holding the bragging rights forever, and the Standard 9s in that team would have taken that baggage with them into the following season.
That encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the Springboks. The term of reference that our young players have is of losing to Italy, Wales, Japan and Argentina for South Africa. So when the coach tells them that they’re good enough to beat the All Blacks, England and the Wallabies, as much as they want to believe it, that message doesn’t match their experience.
We’ve discarded all of the guys who have the experience of beating the world’s best teams.
Malcolm Marx is going to be a great Springbok, but he would get there much quicker if he was given the baton by Bismarck du Plessis. Bismarck got the baton from John Smit.
Duane Vermeulen should be playing to give stability to the team and make sure that the next Bok No 8 knows what to do to win the big games, and that applies across the team.
We’ve got Raymond Rhule, Andries Coetzee and Courtnall Skosan all playing in their first season as Springboks together. There’s no team in the world that will win like that.
As a schoolboy coach, if you played three Standard 9s in the back three you would get hammered – and you’d only do it because you’ve got nobody else. In South Africa, you can’t say we’ve got nobody else. Bryan Habana and Frans Steyn should be there handing over the baton to one of those players.
People have their favourites, but sometimes it’s not about what the public sees and perceives, it’s about what happens behind the scenes that is important for the development of the young players.
Ruan Pienaar is still firing on all cylinders in top-class rugby. Pundits in South Africa are saying we don’t have a halfback now that we’ve just dropped Francois Hougaard, but Pienaar has 88 Test caps and he’s still playing against the best players in the world.
Some will highlight times when he didn’t perform, but they don’t see what a player like that does for the youngsters in a squad, on and off the field, to help build for the future. And that’s what coaching is all about, the development of how you put a team together.
Everyone is searching for a reason why the Boks are struggling but the thing staring us in the face is that there’s no one handing over the baton.
At Jeppe, we had Founders Day where all the old boys playing provincial rugby would come and play against the first team. That meant that when there was a scrum, the Transvaal U20 loosehead would be coaching the first team tighthead about the tricks of the trade.
The old boys weren’t there to win, they were there to tell the first team guys what to expect. This is what is missing in South Africa, and it’s the reason we’re in a hole.
The All Blacks have put a premium on handing over the baton. Sam Cane had 30 Test caps under the belt when he took over from Richie McCaw. The Bulls got that right under Heyneke Meyer – Fourie du Preez learnt from Joost van der Westhuizen – and that’s part of the reason for their success.
There is no magic wand to fix it now because it’s not about who should be on the field, it’s about who should have been handing over the baton to make sure we were prepared.
Let’s not forget that we were world champions; we were the number one side in the world. But we won’t get back there until we come round to what is a fundamental theory of sport.