It’s an indictment of our rugby that people who remember the standard of rugby pre-professionalism believe that a team from the amateur era would beat the current Springboks.
Shortly before heading back to Japan last week, I attended a schools rugby festival in Johannesburg. It doubled as a bit of a reunion with some of the Jeppe old boys I used to coach and we invariably shared a few war stories before they asked me about the Springboks of today.
I turned the question around and asked how they thought the Bok team that lost against Wales in November would fare against the following side, in their heyday: Andre Joubert, Carel du Plessis, Ray Mordt, Danie Gerber, Michael du Plessis, Naas Botha, Joost van der Westhuizen, Morne du Plessis, Ruben Kruger, Gert Smal, Mark Andrews, Frik du Preez, Hempies du Toit, Uli Schmidt and Henning van Aswegen.
The majority said that the amateurs would smash the incumbents up front and run them to pieces in the backs.
It was eye-opening feedback because that team of amateurs worked full-time jobs. They only trained twice a week, in the evenings after work, and yet people are saying they were stronger and more skillful.
The modern-day Boks train every day, have a full nutrition plan, comprehensive opposition analysis, and every kind of specialist coach you can imagine – from a mental coach to a skills coach – so you have got to ask why people believe they would lose against a team of part-time players.
Those amateurs had to work harder to become internationals; they had to survive in a highly-competitive system where they could fall out at every tier. On a Monday night, after a Currie Cup match, the weekly pecking order was worked out during koppestamp. Top performing club players were invited to training for those sessions, and there was nowhere to hide – you had to come through that, otherwise you wouldn’t play the following weekend.
The reason that era of player is regarded as mentally and physically tougher is because they were coached by men who had been around for a long time. The likes of Buurman van Zyl and Ian McIntosh had been coaching for 20 or 30 years by the time they were appointed to coach provincial rugby.
The coaching structures were completely different. Schoolmasters would have had upwards of 10 years of experience within an age group, and the same went for club coaches.
One of the schools that Jeppe competed with when I was there had the same U14 coach for about 20 years, and the success of their 1st team was based on what he did with the U14s. He’d play a tall thin boy at lock in the U14D team instead of at centre for the Bs because experience had taught him that, based on the boy’s parents, the youngster would fill out and grow into a 1st team tight forward. This was the kind of insight he shared with the other, younger coaches at the school.
When I was a teacher, talking to other coaches and asking them what was working for them, and watching how they trained their team, it made me a better schoolmaster coach.
One thing I’ve found at today’s rugby festivals is that every schoolboy coach wants to know where they should go coach next, even though they’ve only been with the 1st team for three years. I started coaching in 1982, and only got the Jeppe 1st team in 1989, and I coached that team for six years before I moved on.
Some renowned schoolmasters coached for 20 years, so if you were a staff member at one of those schools, you didn’t get to coach the first team.
This is what has changed in SA rugby. The pedigree of our coaches is the issue. The challenge is, how do we fix it?
Getting team selections right at the top and changing coaches are short-term repairs. We have to address coaching structure and pathways at the amateur level so that the value of long-tenure coaches is recognized and celebrated. We do still have those die-hards in our rugby, but they’ve become few and far between.
We need a system in South Africa where coaches can see a clear pathway through the ranks and a coaching headquarters where the next generation of coaches can find the tools they need.
There are things that apply to the junior ranks of rugby that you can only learn by coaching there. Basil Bey coached Bishops for years and the secret to his brand of rugby was that they based their game on playing sevens in training all the time.
When you coach a club side, you’re on the phone on a Thursday night to find out why a player wasn’t at training, and you’re trying to decide how to replace a guy who can’t play this week because he’s got an exam to study for. That’s amateur coaching.
Those are important lessons which can be applied, albeit in a different way, at the professional level. And they’re lessons which can and must be taught to aspiring professional coaches to ensure that tomorrow’s Springboks can live up to the legend of their predecessors.