Norman Laker - the great defender
They had not had a great campaign, but in the vital last three rounds, they beat the Sharks, the Golden Lions and the Sharks. It is remarkable that in the last two of those matches, a semifinal and the final, the opposition – Golden Lions and Sharks, the latter with 12 players who played in the final of Super Rugby this year – did not score a single point in the second half. In fact in the first of the ending run of three matches, the Sharks led 13-3 at half-time. Western Province won the second half 28-7. That means that in two hours of rugby, the opponents scored one try for seven points. That is winning defence and the man responsible for that defence was Norman Laker.
The broader public would probably like to be introduced to Norman Laker, the action man that they see wearing a yellow shirt and hurrying onto the field, bag in hand, whenever there is a breakdown.
Laker is a rugby man and Province man, and has been for years. He says: "My rugby history goes back for as long as I can remember. From a very young age I was an absolute fanatic about the game, and it was a real disaster if I couldn’t attend a Western Province Currie Cup game at my beloved Newlands on a Saturday afternoon."
His love of local has not prevented him from wandering in search of chances to exercise his passion for coaching rugby football. But first, we need to fill in the background.
Andrew Norman Laker was born in Somerset West on the 30 December 1984. He went up the road to the great Paul Roos Gymnasium where he played flyhalf or centre for the first team in his last two years. Out of school he completed a course in Marketing Management at Boland College and also completed the World Rugby Level 2 coaching course.
In 2005 and 2006, he was still a player when Alan Zondagh, a top coach, started his Rugby Performance Centre, and Laker went to the Centre where, he says, "I learned more about the finer tactics of the game and Alan also taught me to be a professional sportsman". His younger brother Johann, a scrumhalf, also went to Centre. Johann then went to university in Potchefstroom and played for the Leopards.
Serious injuries put paid to his playing career and he set about arming himself for coaching. He tells it. "I started coaching at the Western Province Rugby Institute (WPRI) in Stellenbosch in 2007. At the time Jacques Hanekom was the Director of Western Province Junior rugby and Steph Nell was the Head Coach of the Western Province Rugby Institute. I worked at the WPRI for seven years, from 2007 to 2013, where I developed not only as a rugby coach but in particular as a defence coach and also as a person. Till today, I have never forgotten what Jacques and Steph did for me, giving me the opportunity to develop as a rugby coach'
"During my time at the Institute Jacques Nienaber was appointed at the Stormers as their defence coach and when he had a training session, whether in Stellenbosch or in Bellville, I was there willing to learn, as he was the best in the business."
Then he started to spread his wings. His friend Dawie Snyman, nephew of the former Springbok of the same name, was coaching Sri Lanka and Laker joined him. "In 2009, I was appointed to coach India’s national 15s and 7s teams. As was the case in Sri Lanka, it was a real challenge, because in both countries cricket is their national sport and rugby was not a game played by many in the country. I truly believe this frustrating time on the playing field helped me to develop as a rugby coach."
Then it all paid off. "In 2014, I received the break I most wanted to coach at a higher level. I was appointed as the defence coach of the Western Province Vodacom Cup team and the Under-21 team. It was the first time I worked with John Dobson as he was the head coach of the team and Dawie Snyman was the attack coach. Charl Malherbe, also a very good friend of mine, was the conditioning coach of the team.
"From the outset I had huge respect for Dobbo, as I could see the man’s passion for the game. That year we played in the Vodacom Cup and the Under-21 final, where we unfortunately lost both games."
And things got still better. "When Gert Smal, current director of rugby at Western Province Rugby Union, told me in May 2016 I was to be part of Dobbo’s coaching team for the Currie Cup it was a dream come true. I had worked very hard for this opportunity and I knew it was something I needed to take on with both hands. I was confident that I could contribute as I knew I had the capabilities of coaching at the highest level."
One year later he was part of a group that came back from Durban with the Currie Cup in their baggage.
For Dobson, Laker's contribution was vital – a combination of knowledge, shrewdness and excellent communication. "In the heat of defending, the player must hear Norman's instruction clearly and directly. That happened and our defence became really good."
Laker says: "As a defence coach, it is very important that every player buys into your defence system and fully understands his role in the team. Defence is all about everyone working together for the team, and so for this reason, a key focus area was to introduce a culture of caring, hard work and having the right attitude. Defence is the one place where you can see if the team is a tight unit."
It helped the team win the Supersport Challenge Cup and Currie Cup.
In summary: "I can honestly say that I love my job and that I have a huge passion for the game. I wear my heart on my sleeve and it really hurts if the team that I am involved with does not have a very good defence record. I try to stay calm before a rugby game, but when the kick-off takes place it is impossible for me to keep quiet. I motivate the team through sheer passion and determination. It is all about being humble but at the same time I must have confidence in my abilities. If the players trust me, they will trust my defence system."
But before he goes, Laker has enthusiastic expressions of gratitude.
"As I have said, I have huge respect for Dobbo. From day one he created a culture of caring and sharing. He is someone who gets the best out of everyone who is involved and because of that I am willing to climb mountains. I truly believe that the whole team, coaches and players have this attitude. I can only thank him for showing faith in me."
Then he wanted to thank his family for their support – his father and mother, Siebrits and Cynthia, and his three brothers and Melanie, "my wife and the love of my life. She is my source of strength and encourages me in every way. We live in Stellenbosch and enjoy our lives together.
"We are truly very blessed."