It was shortly before the 2015 Rugby World Cup final that then Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer conducted an off-the-record briefing with some of the journalists present.
The Boks had just taken third place and Meyer summed up a campaign overshadowed by the shock defeat to Japan by expressing his concern for the future.
He warned those in attendance that things would get worse in SA Rugby, primarily because of the outflow of players and the lack of structures to deal with transforming the game. Coupled to the inability to work towards a common goal, Meyer ominously warned that “many more shocks are probably coming.”
Many in the room ignored the warning but a few years later those of us that were there must admit Meyer was right. Springbok rugby lurched from one defeat to the next under Allister Coetzee, before Rassie Erasmus kicked off his term with a loss against Wales.
Much has been written about what is wrong with our rugby; it’s time to ask what can we do to get the Boks back to the top of the world?
The short answer isn’t easy, and won’t be popular. SA Rugby should not delay in taking a number of steps to not only stop the player drain but also give local franchises the best chance of competing worldwide.
We have too many professional players. A system like ours, with a weak rand, can only support 250-300 players and not the 600-plus that we currently have. The result is too many players earning a living out of rugby and diluting the system.
Cutting the number of professional provincial teams to a maximum of six would be a step in the right direction, if SA Rugby follow through on it.
I hate using other teams as examples, but Ireland’s stellar year – they won the Six Nations, won the Pro14 and European Cup, and watched their Sevens team reach the semis of the London7s in their first big tournament – comes from nothing more than good planning.
Ireland have way fewer resources than the Springboks. They have much less talent, but they have a common goal. A recent conversation with an Irish club coach put it in perspective. They needed a new fitness guy, so what did they do? They headhunted a strength and conditioning expert from the NFL, because he was the best candidate.
Think about that for a minute – the best they could find. Irish rugby has a mantra right now that every facet of their play needs to be at its best and the people in every franchise, in every club, need to be the best the sport can get.
Contrast that to the South African scene. How many people employed by rugby are in the top 2 percent in their field? How many got their jobs through family or club connections and simply wafted into a permanent role? How many are given jobs to do favours for others
And Irish coaches do more with less. They coach players and work on their skills. At the moment too many players choose the “easy” option of a well-paying contract abroad rather than fighting for their places. And that’s the situation we find ourselves in – this weekend, Monpellier fielded 293 Test caps and the Boks 124.
So cut the number of players, cut the provinces and put excellence at the forefront of a franchise system. Move the money to where it can be used properly and put systems in place to keep players in South Africa.
Instead of funding 14 provinces with millions to keep them alive, six teams would mean that proper academies can be put in place, that top coaches are funnelled to these teams and that a culture of excellence is created. Just like Ireland, well-run professional teams require funding, and the investment will pay off if it is implemented correctly.
Players may not earn as much here, but the competition for places will be more intense and if the coaching structures are right, the standard will increase and Springbok rugby will be the beneficiary.
Suddenly we will have Super Rugby squads where players will be older than 25, where rugby IQ is passed down and mentorship can happen. Sure, we will still lose players, but at least the franchises can compete on an equal footing.
After the Boks went down in Washington D.C., I received a few messages from contacts in rugby who were highly critical of Rassie. One called him the “messiah” that had fallen at the first hurdle and another told me “Allister Coetzee would have been laughing all the way through the game.”
These weren’t emotional fans who lacked insight, these were rugby folk – people who earn their living through the game. I was disgusted because, regardless of what you think about Rassie and his coaching, it is time we stopped pointing out the symptoms and started fixing the problems.
SA Rugby is doing their best with limited resources but they are hamstrung by their own structures. Too often personal survival tops what is good for the game when it comes to decision-making.
Provincial presidents protect their own turf, and while many can see the changes are needed, the personal cost is too high for them, and the professional arm of SA Rugby can only do so much without the go-ahead of its stakeholders.
The buy-in from around the country, from every level, needs to be there for the Boks to succeed. The desire to be the best in every facet of the game needs to be there. And some hard decisions about the future of the game need to be taken.
Until they are, and until the vision is united and the focus direct, we can expect more Bok shocks and younger teams than ever before, no matter who the coach is.