Watching the football World Cup reminded me of an innovation that rugby has picked up from that sport – the prehab coach.
Prevention is always better than cure and the new thing in rugby is prehab training. Rather than waiting for weak hamstrings to turn into an injury that requires rehabilitation, the prehab coach looks at the results from testing and gets players to do extras that strengthen their weaknesses so that an injury can be avoided.
In football, they’ve worked out that it’s better to employ two or three more physios than are required because it costs the club less money to pay those extra physios – who ensure that players can get treatment whenever they need it – than to have four or five stars out injured.
Whether we like it or not, New Zealand are the leaders in rugby and part of the reason is because they think this way about their coaching staff.
At points during the period they won back-to-back World Cups, the All Blacks had Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen and Graham Henry in the same coaching box.
Those guys weren’t just head coaches of three club sides, they were the best of the best. New Zealand headhunted three international coaches to sit in the box – Smith had been head coach of New Zealand, Hansen had coached Wales and Henry had coached Wales and the British & Irish Lions before heading up the All Blacks.
Most coaches who get fired from a national post never come into the system again, but New Zealand went and got Wayne Smith to come back.
The reason they went to those lengths is because three international head coaches working together would all know the dynamics of that job and what was required from the head coach and his assistants. They all had first-hand experience of the job and were sensitive to the outside factors that influence a head coach, like the media, sponsorship stakeholders and board members.
When the pressure is on in the coaches box, and decisions have to be made about substitutions and refereeing calls, a coaching staff needs experience to understand what’s at stake so that they can get through that with the best outcome.
Sometimes, having an assistant who has been a head coach at a high level, one who understands the sum of all the parts, is more beneficial than an innovative, but inexperienced assistant.
Often what happens in South Africa is you go from being an assistant coach at the Boks to being a Super Rugby franchise head coach, and it should probably be the other way round. I’m a product of that and I know what it’s like to have assistants who have been head coaches.
I also know the difference when you don’t have guys like that in the booth with you. When some of your assistant coaches have never been to New Zealand before and the Hurricanes are running your team to pieces in Wellington, there’s silence when you ask “what should we do here?” – and it’s not because they’re thinking, it’s because they’ve got absolutely no idea.
When the pressure is on, that’s when you need guys with experience, because that’s when the holes open up.
People understand the importance of having players with lots of Test caps who can handle the pressure of big games. Sometimes having a coaching staff made up of head coaches who understand the nuances of different situations, places and players is a helluva bonus.
I don’t have the perfect model, but the one with Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen and Graham Henry is the benchmark. In my time at the Boks, I had Gert Smal and Allister Coetzee who had been head coaches. And that’s why I got Eddie Jones to join us, because he’d been in the previous World Cup final. He’d been there and done it; it was a no-brainer.
After we won, people said it was because of Eddie. That doesn’t bother me at all because I’ve got no doubt that he helped us win – that’s the reason I brought him in!
We didn’t necessarily do everything Eddie suggested, but the conversations we had made us better. We played good-cop, bad-cop and Eddie smoothed over speed bumps with players and management that could have slowed us down on the way to becoming world champions.
Like the three guys who sat in the All Blacks box, we all had egos and our own ideas about the game, because it’s impossible that international head coaches are aligned on everything.
I’m sure there were times at the All Blacks when the coaches challenged each other and not everyone was happy with the decisions that were taken, but they would have handled that internally because they had the common desire to keep the team winning.
Eddie has obviously been taking flak for England’s slump, and that kind of flak will eventually hit Rassie Erasmus just as it has hit Michael Cheika and Guy Noves. It happens to everyone.
But maybe New Zealand have shown the way. If South Africa was coached by Rassie, Heyneke Meyer and Nick Mallett, wouldn’t the Boks be in a better position to avoid speed bumps, and win next year’s World Cup?