It’s been awfully quiet on the speculation front since Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, in December last year, unexpectedly dropped the bomb that he would not continue in the job beyond 2019.
Presumably Rassie wants to focus on his job as director of rugby and concern himself with the long-term health of South African rugby. He’ll be able to do so as a man who won’t die wondering as to whether he could make a success of the Bok job.
Who then to replace Rassie, or to put it otherwise, report to Rassie?
I’ve heard the names of Deon Davids and Swys de Bruin pop up, which frankly mystifies me. Davids (who I do rate by the way) is being fired by the Southern Kings and De Bruin is struggling to cope with the stress of coaching the Lions. Nor have any of South Africa’s other present Super Rugby or Pro14 coaches achieved the success to be realistic contenders.
Why then is there not broad consensus that Gloucester coach Johan Ackermann should be a shoo-in for the job?
Last week Gloucester proudly announced that they had secured him on a long-term contract to continue with the job he started in 2017. However, there is a catch – the former Lions coach has a release clause in the event of an international team knocking on his door.
The man’s coaching record is second to none. The Golden Lions were a mess when he took the reins in 2013 and he left in 2017 having guided them to two successive Super Rugby finals, which they lost to the Hurricanes and Crusaders respectively. He did so with a host of unheralded players, some of whom became household names.
Ackermann left the Lions on his terms – on a high. De Bruin was at the helm of the side that made last year’s Super Rugby final, albeit partly thanks to a foruitous competition format. The ease with which the Lions dispatched the Stormers this past weekend also suggests they are in the zone with the play-offs approaching (though I don’t see them advancing to the final).
I have a deep respect for De Bruin, but his situation is not unlike that of former Bok coach Allister Coetzee, who at the Stormers and Western Province benefited from the structures Erasmus had left behind.
De Bruin is already involved with the Boks and I would like to see him as Ackermann’s chief assistant – as was the case at the Lions. No head coach could ask for a better wingman than a coach who is both renowned for his technical expertise and a decent man to boot.
Under Ackermann and De Bruin the Lions were a physically-imposing and daring side, strong in the set phases, excellent at the breakdown and devastatingly effective on attack.
The stint at Gloucester would also have made Ackermann a better coach. I interviewed him this week and he spoke about the benefits of having been challenged in a new environment and being forced out of his comfort zone. Indications are that he has done so successfully and his coaching career at Gloucester appears to be following a similar trajectory to that at the Lions.
In his first season in charge – 2017/18 – Gloucester finished seventh on the Premiership log, up from ninth the previous season. In 2018/19 they made it to third before losing to Saracens in the semi-final. Ackermann in the process proved himself an adaptable coach – able to reach players across cultural boundaries.
So for me, if Rassie sticks to the plan of stepping down, it’s a no-brainer that Ackermann should replace him. Of course, it would remain to be seen whether he would be prepared to take a pay cut and sign up for the unique terms and conditions of coaching the Boks!
Jake White would probably fancy another crack at the job, but it’s a struggle to get back into the South African system once it has chewed you up and for no logical reason spat you out. I’m also a big fan of Munster’s Johann van Graan, but of course it wouldn’t be worth his while to return to South Africa and play no more than a support role as he did under Coetzee and Heyneke Meyer at the Boks.
And what about Peter de Villiers? Just kidding!
Ackermann it is. Or should be.