Hearing that there have been calls for Nollis Marais to be fired after the Bulls lost badly against the Crusaders got me thinking about the difference between the coaching pathways in South Africa and New Zealand.
The reality is that we’ve got guys coaching Super Rugby now who have never been assistant coaches for a Super Rugby team. Australia’s got the same problem.
That’s very seldom the case if you look at how many years and games the coaching staffs in NZ have under the belt before becoming Super Rugby head coaches.
And that gap is also there if you look at the coaching backgrounds of the assistant coaches – compare the Bulls’ assistant coaches to the Crusaders and Chiefs, for example.
Coaching is a tough gig. It’s a results-driven business, and that’s why you need a clear pathway and an auditing system to ensure coaches are groomed for high-pressure positions, so that they’re ready for the challenge.
In comparing New Zealand and South Africa we obviously have a bigger player exodus, but, fundamentally, there’s something flawed about our coaching structures. Maybe that’s what the indabas should be focusing on.
As things stand, you could probably pick a coaching staff in SA made up of long-time schoolmasters who have been coaching 1st XVs for 15 years that could handle the pressures better than the guys we’ve got in Super Rugby now.
This is not a dig at Nollis. I don’t know him and I’m sure he’s a good junior coach, but it’s tough on him at this level because he’s never been on a Super Rugby tour before. He’s never been to Hamilton, and suddenly he’s coaching against the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium.
That’s not his fault – our coaching pathways have allowed someone with no experience to be in that position, so how can South African rugby expect different results if this is the criteria?
That would be unheard of in New Zealand because they understand that, generally, Super Rugby is not the level where coaches should be cutting their teeth. Kiwi coaches learn their lessons with other teams.
Where we get it wrong in South Africa is that we think the coaching “brainstrust” is all about the Xs and Os of rugby – the technical differences between a tighthead prop and a loosehead prop, when to kick and how to attack. It’s actually got much more to do with experience than people think.
I started coaching in 1982. By 1997, I was with the Lions as a fitness trainer, and the time I spent there helped me to understand what Super Rugby is like in New Zealand.
Before I became a Super Rugby coach, I’d coached the Springboks, the SA U21s, I’d been an assistant coach, a fitness trainer and a schoolmaster for 10 years.
When I coached the Brumbies and Sharks, we won the Super Rugby conference three times in a row and the Brumbies set the record for most consecutive away wins. That doesn’t mean I got it right every time – we lost in the semi-finals – but I could always revert back to what I had experienced as a coach.
How to tour is a good, practical example of where that coaching experience plays a big part in a team’s preparation. A lot of SA sides, when they have matches in New Zealand, think that making a base in Coogee or Manly is the way to go.
It means you spend some time on the beach in Sydney, and the weather is better than it would be in New Zealand. It also means you can make one base and come and go from that base when you have Trans-Tasman matches. But in a lot of ways, you’re also telling the players it’s holiday time, because it’s laid back and the sun is shining.
If you go to New Zealand instead, it could be cold and raining, and the culture and media there is a lot more full on when it comes to rugby.
The coach has got to make that call, and he’s got to know whether his team can cope with his decision and still produce on the field. If you’ve got an experienced team, they can understand the bigger picture and they will still perform, but if you’ve got a young team, they may sense it’s a holiday and it can come back to bite you on Saturday.
It was the same with the Sharks. Having served as an assistant coach there before, I knew they had a history under Ian McIntosh of mimicking their home schedule overseas, and so we did the same when I was the head coach.
And when you play England at Twickenham, they tell you that the stadium and roads around the stadium will be closed, so you have to get to the change room two hours before kickoff. Then, on game day, you find out that the England team arrives one hour before kickoff, in the same traffic…
Now if you don’t pass that kind of information onto the next Bok coach, then he just accepts that those are the rules, and his team arrives two hours before kickoff, and that means their pre-game routine is completely different to what they’re used to at home.
It’s all part of getting experience. If you don’t have it, it becomes hit-and-miss. That’s the intellectual property that is missing in South Africa.