Loose Pass

Date published: December 15 2015

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with super fiascos and foreign national coaches…

Problems in Port Elizabeth…

It's safe to say the decision by SARU to leg-up the Southern Kings into Super Rugby before they had even made a ripple in the Currie Cup has not been too popular in most quarters. But with a World Cup and other non-politically determined things to deal with, the story has slipped well down the radar.

But it's still a serious problem. Sponsorships have not materialized, with Eastern Province Union President Cheeky Watson lamely comparing that problem to a "Greek tragedy" (would that be like the one where the fiscal irresponsibility of the administration in spending oodles of cash they didn't have in a premature attempt to compete with the big boys backfired? Thought so).

A large number of the Currie Cup team's salaries from last season remain unpaid (some players are on strike, several have simply quit), while the initial 20 players who did sign up to play for the Super franchise on Monday are being paid much less than market value, from an emergency holding company set up by SARU to fund the shortfall (does that also ring any bells concerning contemporary Greek tragedies?)

The host province, Eastern Province, thus remains teetering on the precipice of financial administration and SARU has made it pretty clear that their interests lie in ensuring that the Super franchise succeeds rather than the Eastern Province Union itself.

SARU has managed to steady the ship for now, yet how long does that really last? Will there be a sponsor who opts to join in the mess?

A small word of credit to SARU perhaps: their political agenda forced this team into being well before it was ready. They have stepped in to support their troubled teenager when it needed help. The Kings surely will happen. But without wishing to say 'I told you so'…

Wanted: foreigner with remarkably thick skin

Among the snippets of wisdom in Editor Ross Hastie's appraisal of this rugby year was this one: "I honestly believe that only a foreigner could provide the clean slate and neutral perspective South Africa needs for a fresh start. Only an outsider would be able to escape the preset labels of quota/racist, but finding someone willing to drink from the poisoned chalice will not be easy."

It's a concept for the Boks I had thought ought to have been used after the Peter de Villiers cavalcade finally ground to a halt, but it is an indispensable and necessary evil for the Bokke now.

South Africans are a bunch as passionate as they are honest in their appraisals of the national rugby team, while their loyalty to the name, brand, emblem and nation is as unshakeable as a turkey's disparaging attitude to Christmas (obligatory seasonal joke: tick – Ed.) Yet that passion and loyalty manifests itself in fierce in-house debate, extraordinary haranguing sessions in times of hardship and a rapid sub-division of loyalties to either the current coach incumbent or to 'this guy, who'd do it better'. 'Progress' can be a dirty word in South Africa, especially when backed up by the qualifier 'in defeat'. You're only one defeat away from a witch-hunt.

South Africa would not be the first country to be like that. The Welsh struggled with it for years, England, Ireland and Scotland all have as well. 

But Wales might provide the strongest perspective to South Africa: after years of toying with home-grown coaches who could not raise themselves above the local squabbles, Graham Henry, then Steve Hansen, led them out of mediocrity. Off the pitch, Wales' painful but ultimately successful professional transition was started by an Englishman who had cut his sports administration cloth in Australia. From near-obscurity, Wales became a force again.

And then? Process over? Hardly…With a return to locals came a return to old ways and follies. Mike Ruddock departed acrimoniously despite success. Gareth Jenkins failed miserably, controversy and undue vitriol following his every tiniest slip. In came Warren Gatland and the rest is history.

Why? Obviously coaches carry a presence. Gatland's is hard to miss if you've ever shared a room with him. But another aspect that has struck me is that foreign coaches who take control of national sides appear to be granted more respect from the locals. Curiosity for an understanding of a new rugby perspective or strategy? Empathy for a foreigner who doesn't know better? Something changes in the local fans. Heads end up with a bigger say than hearts. Locals don't feel so personally entitled to pile into someone from overseas. In some ways, Jenkins was restricted merely by his being Welsh.

Meanwhile, the foreign coaches seem to find it easier to be neutral, sensible and – most importantly – calming voices in the petty local debates that frequently rage out of control. Perhaps, not in their native land, they find it easier to rise above and see the bigger picture. Perhaps the sub-national nature of the problems combines with the lack of native feeling to cause the necessary emotional detachment needed for a good logical solution. It becomes a lot easier to tell it as it is when you are detached like that.

Poor Heyneke Meyer, passionate to the last and a fine coach and person, was never able to enjoy any of that above, no matter how hard he tried. Bullied by the non-believers at every turn yet desperate to serve his beloved country, he returned to a worn-out game-plan and abandoned his initial vision, just at the moment it needed belligerence to carry it through. The fear of failure grew and grew and Meyer knew he would be reminded of it in his home country forever.

That clamour for Meyer's head grew so very loud, and some of it was simply abhorrent hatred. Meyer responded by belting out his national anthem, head to the heavens, veins popping out on his neck with loyalty and fervour while every Bok success was greeted with the physical emotion of a kitten finding the catnip cupboard.

But he was never, and could never be detached enough to tell it as it is, nor to hold firm when trying to usher in a culture change. As a South African, his job – as perceived by the locals – was not to change the culture, it was to win as a South African, doing it the South African way. If he didn't, the South Africans would waste no time telling him so.

Yet as Ross Hastie pointed out, the Boks need a change, probably across the entire national playing culture. They need someone detached, someone valued but who could yet turn around to the locals and tell it as it is, to calm the debates and to lead as a credible neutral in pressure situations. They need someone who knows when a revered old player is in decline, can make the tough calls from a background of neutrality, and understands how to nurture skills as well as bulk.

It's a hell of a job, but then, as a South African friend of mine put it: 'anyone who does that job and leaves it as a success would be a hell of a coach'. Any takers?

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens