Rassie's replacement: Leading candidates analysed
OPINION: Now that we know the Springbok coaching position will be vacant after the 2019 World Cup, it is time to take a look at and analyse possible candidates.
Unlike most other countries, coaching the national team in South African comes with its own set of challenges – including some political encumbrances.
But those are not new. They just assist us in deciding who fits the bill.
The first question you have to ask is: What constitutes an international head coach?
In layman’s terms: He should have a ‘presence’ and commands respect. He must be a creative, strategic thinker with a rugby IQ.
Now you have to ask: Is there a coach within the South African structures with all those credentials?
I will first look at those ‘candidates’ who still ply their trade in South Africa and then those based abroad.
There are also some ‘foreigners’ worth looking at.
Let’s look at the candidates currently plying their trade in SA.
Deon Davids. He will be high on the ‘wanted’ list, as he ticks certain boxes. He has done an admirable job with limited resources at the Southern Kings. He was even on one of the many shortlists to take over as coach at the Bulls. However, question marks remain over his ability to cope on the international stage. Let’s call it a ‘lack of experience’.
Swys de Bruin. Currently involved in the Springbok setup and is head coach at the Lions. There is an attempt to expand his involvement in the Bok set-up – a suggestion that he is earmarked for a long-term role. As an attacking strategist, he is well respected. As an assistant to Johan Ackermann at the Lions, his reputation skyrocketed. Since taking over as head coach, doubts started creeping in, as the team’s performances declined. He ticks most of the boxes.
Franco Smith. He has been involved in the Springbok structures, as an assistant to Allister Coetzee. He is also an attack-minded coach, regarded as an ‘innovator’. However, you don’t have to look too far to find detractors – based on the Cheetahs’ struggles to be a consistent force. In Bloemfontein, he is revered for his ability to work with limited resources. He ticks several boxes.
Pote Human. For many, he is an afterthought as the Bulls’ head coach. However, his track record – particular as an assistant – is well documented. An honest, hard-working coach with old-school values. He will be working closely with Erasmus – whom he has close ties with – in the 2019 Super Rugby season. Doesn’t tick all the boxes, but not to be scoffed at.
Robert du Preez. Respected at the Sharks, but an unknown factor outside of Super Rugby and reports of his boorish methods have filtered out of Durban. His critics will tell you he has won nothing of note and they have a point. But who of the other candidates have won anything of note? First rose to prominence as a Varsity Cup coach. Ticks some boxes and worth keeping an eye on.
Robbie Fleck. He is in the last year of his contract with the Stormers, who have been in sharp decline during his reign. Yet, he has been around long enough not to be summarily discarded. Only if you are desperate.
Mzwandile Stick. He has been involved in the Springboks structures – both in 2016 under Coetzee and 2018 under Erasmus. Erasmus uses him mainly for his ‘specialist’ Sevens skills. Seen mostly as ‘assistant’ material to ticks certain boxes. However, there has been a suggestion that if he becomes the head coach, he will be a figurehead, with a team of ‘assistants’ to do the job.
Jacques Nienaber. A close, VERY close, ally of Erasmus. Never been a head coach in any shape or form. A qualified physiotherapist and worked for the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in that capacity. First took on the role of a conditioning coach and then defence coach at the request of Erasmus and is now seen as one of premier defence coaches in the game. Like Stick, could do a job for Erasmus – who will be pulling the strings as Director of Rugby at the SA Rugby Union.
Now let’s look at South Africans based abroad.
Johann van Graan. Another ally of Erasmus, who replaced the current Bok coach at Munster. He was previously a Bok assistant under Heyneke Meyer and then Allister Coetzee. He was the only member of Meyer’s coaching team to survived the clean-out after the 2015 World Cup semifinal loss to New Zealand. Signed with Munster until June 2020, but it is believed he has a similar ‘escape’ clause that allowed Erasmus to return to South Africa. His results with Munster have been mixed – sitting top of Pool Two in the European Cup in a very tight race, after their first defeat of their campaign, and second in Conference A of the Pro14. Ticks most boxes.
Johan Ackermann. The former coach of the South Africa A team and the Lions may no longer be so popular back home – following his raids on resources at Ellis Park, to bolster the Gloucester stocks. Ironically he is in Pool Two, the same pool as Van Graan’s Munster. However, there is no denying his coaching prowess, having taken a bunch of ‘no-name brand’ players and turned them into Springboks – which saw his reputation as a mentor enhanced. He may not win a popularity contest in South Africa, but he can coach and ticks most of the boxes. An astute selector.
Heyneke Meyer. His stint with the Boks from 2012 to 2015 damaged his reputation, even though the Springboks finished third at the World Cup. He revived his career at Stade Français, where he has had some initial success. However, recent defeats in Europe (Challenge Cup) and Top 14 has seen doubts resurface. No doubt he is passionate about the job and may have learnt enough lessons to warrant a second shot.
Jake White. The 2007 World Cup winner is another successful coach who alienated the bosses at SARU headquarters in Plattekloof, Cape Town. Has thrown his name into several hats for an international stint since 2008 – including England and Australia. His stints at the Brumbies, Sharks and Montpellier did not end on a happy note either. Again, he won’t win many popularity contests, but he CAN coach. Has experience and ticks all but one box.
Peter de Villiers. Former Springbok coaches are not high on SARU’s popularity list and he is one of the least liked of them all. He has every right to feel aggrieved, as his critics are so often hypocritical. When his team won, the players coached it. When things went pearshaped, it was the coach’s fault. The fact remains, he beat the 2009 B&I Lions, won the Tri-Nations that year and whitewashed the All Blacks that year. He has a record that can’t be disputed. Then there is his current stint with Zimbabwe and his critics will latch onto that. He ticks at least one very important box.
Now let us look at few foreigners.
Scott Robertson. Back-to-back Super Rugby titles in his first two seasons as head coach of the Crusaders means he is in the race for the All Black job when Steve Hansen retires after the World Cup next year. Innovative and entertaining. Would be a great catch for any team. Ticks all but one of SARU’s boxes.
John Mitchell. If you are willing to look past his personality traits – which are well documented and resulted in a number of job changes – he is the ideal candidate. In his second stint as an assistant coach at England and his stint with the All Blacks saw him achieve more than an 80 percent success rate. He also ticks all but one of the boxes SARU may require. Unfortunately, he won’t get much support from some of the South African franchises.
John Plumtree. Another New Zealand who has plenty of experience of the South African landscape. He is familiar with the political machinations that can make a coach’s life a living hell. Also knows how to get the best out of South African players. Not scared to get high-profile assistants and is innovative. He certainly ticks all but one of the boxes.
Give the qualities of all these coaches, here are my top five:
1. Johan Ackermann
2. Scott Robertson
3. John Plumtree
4. Johann van Graan
5. Jake White
The following would make great backroom staff: Swys de Bruin, Jacques Nienaber, Deon Davids, Heyneke Meyer, John Mitchell.
By Jan de Koning