The reference to Liverpool’s magnificent recovery in their UEFA Champions league semi-final tie against Barcelona in a press release issued by the Board of Western Province Rugby at the weekend got the mind ticking and cannot pass without comment.
“We have seen some inspirational stories in the UEFA Champions league in recent weeks, with both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur producing epic comebacks which show what is achievable if all stakeholders are aligned.”
The words were those of WP Rugby Group CEO Paul Zacks. I am a Liverpool supporter and would agree with Zacks that they are an example of what can be achieved when all stakeholders are aligned. We are on the same page when it comes to the need for alignment. Indeed, I did think of WP when watching the Liverpool fans celebrate with the squad last Tuesday.
But what I was thinking was how many millions of miles away WP are from being a Liverpool. In the sense that there is clearly so much connectedness between the different parts of what makes Liverpool whole, meaning from admin through to the coaching/management group, players and then to the fans/support base.
Anyone who thinks there is anything like that at WP either just hasn’t been paying attention or has been living on Mars. If Liverpool are an object lesson on how things should be done in professional sport, then WP are the object lesson on how things shouldn’t be done.
The very fact that the press release had to be issued in the first place illustrates the point. It appealed to Stormers fans, the stakeholders Zacks was referring to, to get behind the team and back the current coaching staff to continue in their jobs for the rest of the season.
This was disingenuous for the reason that the people who haven’t been backing the Stormers, the people who have been putting the biggest obstacles in their path, have been the very people who issued the release.
It’s always been thus, and if you disagree just ask two top rugby brains, Rassie Erasmus and Nick Mallett, both of whom served in positions that equated to the WP director of rugby position, about the circumstances surrounding their departures. Erasmus spoke at the time of the interference by elected officials and the politicking between individuals that deflected the focus away from rugby.
It is understood that less than two hours ahead of the home derby against the Bulls, Fleck was informed by Zacks that he would be sacked if his team didn’t win both that game and the following one against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
Some have argued in favour of the decision on the basis that John Dobson is taking over next season anyway so he might as well get cracking with the job now. While that might appear to make sense on a superficial level, it doesn’t if you do what the decision makers should be doing before acting, which is to apply your mind to it.
Firstly, the Stormers are still very much in contention in the South African conference, their season is far from over, and wouldn’t have been even if they had lost to both the Bulls and the Jaguares. The WP press release seems to be treating this as if it should be news to Stormers fans. But it shouldn’t be news to the WP Board.
There are no Barcelonas in the SA conference. Who, in professional sport, changes coaches when it is all still on the line at such a critical stage of the season?
Secondly, if the proposed change was just directed by succession planning considerations, why the need for an ultimatum? And why the need to win the Jaguares game, which South African teams wouldn’t be expected to win anyway.
Surely if getting Dobson started was such a strong consideration, the change could have been made in March, when the plans for next year were first announced. It should not depend on the result of the next game, the incumbent coach should not be operating on a game-to-game basis with the sword of Damocles hanging over him.
Thirdly, and most importantly, was Dobson consulted about this plan? I asked him long ago if he would be prepared to take over the Stormers in mid-season and his answer was an emphatic no. If I knew this, why didn’t the board and the executive know it? Or even consider it a possibility and call in Dobson to ask him themselves?
According to Sunday media reports, Dobson played a role in saving Fleck by digging his heels in. It is understood the rest of the current management did too. Which begs another question – was there any due process, any attempt made to establish the facts of the working relationship within the management, carried out before the decision to axe Fleck was taken? There wasn’t.
If there had been, the faction of elected officials driving the move against Fleck would have known that the camp is a happy one. There have been some mistakes made on the field, but there hasn’t been any indication that the coach has lost the change room or, like the Sharks, there is a lack of effort and possible problems within the team environment. Unlike the Bulls and Sharks, most failures have been by fine margins.
The assistant coaches currently working with the team are also Dobson’s assistant coaches and they want Fleck to serve out his term so they can learn from his experience. As does Dobson.
Not that it was just Dobson that saved Fleck. We hear that the coach made a convincing argument for his retention when he went in front of the Board last Tuesday.
I have no idea of what was said, but from what is remembered of the Erasmus experience he probably showed them some videos illustrating the fine margins that separated him from a successful tour and then produced some statistics that would have had the various officials and board members nodding in agreement and uttering words such as: “We didn’t know this, that is very interesting”.
Which, in a nutshell, is the real problem – a professional rugby operation is being run by people who know far too little about professional rugby, and have far too little real experience of professional rugby, to be making the decisions they do. Which is why, when WP reference the Liverpool experience, they are living in dreamland.