It must be close to 25 years ago to the month that the late South African Rugby Football Union president Dr Louis Luyt addressed a party of media people covering the 1994 Springbok tour of New Zealand.
Luyt had just returned to New Zealand from South Africa, where he had given rise in media interviews to plenty of speculation that Ian McIntosh, Bok coach at the time, was going to be sacked. The Boks had lost the series but there was still one Test match and a provincial game or two to go so it should have been understandable that when he was asked the question, he answered like he did.
“We are on a tough tour, we can’t keep putting the coach under so much pressure. He won’t be sacked now.”
Those might not have been the exact words but they were pretty close to it. There was definitely the word “now” in it because it was his use of that word – Luyt was clever with words – that prompted me to approach Luyt with a private question, while the rest of the South African hacks were rushing off to file pieces saying that McIntosh’s job was safe.
“Doc, you keep saying you can’t sack Mac now. Does that mean that you can’t sack him now while he is on tour, but it may be a different story when he gets back home?”
Luyt looked at me long and hard before eventually deciding that honesty was the best policy. He confirmed my interpretation as the correct one. It was why my story on that press conference differed from others. And sure enough, McIntosh was axed when the tour was over.
I thought of that this week when I saw the reaction of Sharks chief executive Gary Teichmann to media questions about the status of under-fire coach Robert du Preez.
“Robert is the coach and has our full support. I also believe NOW is not the time to comment on such matters. We only want to focus on rugby.”
The word ‘now’ wasn’t capped by Teichmann but by me. I just felt it should be emphasised, in case someone missed it like my fellow scribes did back in 1994. So what does Teichmann mean? What he means is that Du Preez is currently the Sharks coach, of course the Sharks will back him publicly or he will be due a big pay-out from them if or when they do sack him, and he’s currently in charge of a team that is about to play a quarter-final.
What Teichmann didn’t say but must surely have thought was “Why do you ask such a bloody stupid question? How else am I supposed to respond?”
I could write a book on questions asked of rugby players, personalities and coaches over the years that frankly were idiotic given the context. One that springs to mind was Victor Matfield, the Bok captain on the day, being asked after a loss to the Wallabies in Durban in 2008 whether he supported the coach, Peter de Villiers.
This was in a press conference and De Villiers was sitting right next to Matfield. Regardless of whether or not he supported the coach, there was surely only one way he was ever going to answer the question in that forum. And sure enough the lemmings all ran with the headline the next day, or a variant of it: “Boks back their coach!”
I’m not for one second suggesting Matfield didn’t back De Villiers. Just that regardless of what he really felt, it was hard to consider his response relevant. Was there any chance at all of him saying no?
Being a rugby scribe can be a frustrating business because if you do your job properly, and have the contacts and the ins to the camp, you are often privy to a story that would be easy to write if all your sources were happy to be quoted. But invariably they are not, and for obvious reasons.
In 1999 there was a Bok player who had massive problems with Nick Mallett, who was then the coach, and encouraged me to write it. I did, but then one day that same player was put in front of the television cameras and asked if the players supported the coach. His response: “Of course we do, I don’t know where the media gets the rubbish that they write”.
A couple of months later that same player called me out of a restaurant to have a private conversation. He said I was on the right track with my criticisms of Mallett (I was peeved that Teichmann had been dropped as Bok captain) and that many players supported my line. When asked about the television interview, he said “What was I supposed to say?” And he was right.
My mate Mike Greenaway has good sources for his line on Du Preez and the unhappiness with his coaching across many levels of Sharks rugby, from ex-players, current players and through the coaching staff to above that. I know this because I think we have the same sources and have written similar stories.
Greenaway knows that one of the first rules of journalism is that if you are prepared to dish it out you should be prepared to take it, so the King of Cockroaches, as he should henceforth be known, probably doesn’t mind that title.
But Du Preez referring to the media as coachroaches, not once but twice in recent times, might well provide the confirming ammunition for those who want him out. There’s a time and a place, and there have been many coaches and rugby people who have called me all sorts of things when they have phoned or approached me to disagree with what has been written. I’ve never had a problem with that. It’s their right to be angry.
Doing it at a formal press conference is different, and somehow referring to the fourth estate as cockroaches at this time when rugby should be doing everything it can to sell itself just seems too crude, too neanderthal (I can use that word if I am a cockroach) and too insulting for the Sharks coach to get away with. Do it in private, but not in a public forum.
If you disagree, imagine if we reversed roles now and the media started referring to Du Preez as a cockroach. As in “Cockroach selects Cockroach Junior – again!”
Surely that ends the argument. If Du Preez wasn’t on his way out the door before last Saturday, he should be now. We are no longer in an era where the coach can just be defined by what happens between the four lines, he also has to be seen to be selling the game and the brand. Du Preez’s deportment when facing the media, which is is his interface with the public and his team’s support base, does the opposite.