Allister, jou lekker ding

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IT SEEMS pretty certain now that Allister Coetzee will leave the Stormers on a high note, which is excellent news, both for him and for the team he will leave behind. A win against the Lions this weekend will secure the Stormers’ position at the head of the South African conference for the third time in the five years that Coetzee has led the Cape side.

Coetzee jets off to a new coaching job in Japan at the conclusion of the 2015 Super Rugby competition, leaving Western Province in good shape. The Stormers, now second in the overall log, have a shot at a home semifinal. Last Saturday, their Vodacom Cup team made it through to the final after an unbroken nine-game stampede through the pool games. Unfortunately for them, they were pipped to the post by a powerful Pumas team but, nevertheless, it proved that WP has a deep seam of competitive players.

They are also growing able coaches: Vodacom Cup coach, John Dobson, will later this year take over from Coetzee as Currie Cup coach.

Behind the scenes, Western Province director of rugby, Gert Smal, has been quietly putting in place foundations that should ensure solid growth for at least the next few years.

Since he joined Western Province last year, Smal has been on a recruiting drive to increase depth in the junior teams and he has also strengthened the management team. Sports psychologist, Henning Gericke, who accompanied the Proteas to the World Cup earlier this year, is working with all the Western Province teams. The appointment of a kicking coach in Vlok Cilliers is another innovation.

Continuity and institutional memory will be retained through Coetzee’s long-time assistants: backline maestro, Robbie Fleck, and forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot. The unassuming Proudfoot is the power behind the Stormers’ front row, arguably the best in Super Rugby at the moment.

Smal himself brings considerable intellectual capital. The former Springbok flanker was an assistant coach to Jake White from 2003 to 2007, when the Boks won the Rugby World Cup. As assistant coach to Declan Ireland’s Irish team from 2007 to 2013, he gained invaluable international experience and a fresh perspective on the South African rugby environment. The fact that he helped the Irish team take a Six Nations title, a Grand Slam and a Triple Crown didn’t do his reputation any harm.

The question mark hanging over the High Performance Centre in Bellville now is: who will succeed Coetzee as Super Rugby coach?

There are plenty of able and experienced men who would leap at the chance of coaching the Stormers but the shambles at the once proud Sharks shows the perils of jetting in high-profile coaches.

It would reflect well on Western Province’s development structures if they were to choose a home-grown candidate, who has emerged from within their own ranks.

If Dobson does well in the Currie Cup, he will presumably be in the running. Dobson has been with Western Province since 2010. He and his assistant coach, Dawie Snyman, started off with the Under-21s, where there was a focus on bringing through players of colour.

I shadowed the University of Cape Town’s Ikey Tigers through their 2010 Varsity Cup campaign for a book I was writing. Dobson, who holds a BA LLB and an MA in Creative Writing from UCT, was head coach. What struck me was how much thought went into creating a unique culture for the team. They had a theme song called the Poet Warriors. Team talks were infused with poetry and tales of heroism from the First World War.

Being a university team, it was more highbrow than most, but the principle would apply anywhere. Every team needs a story: to cement mutual understanding and strengthen team bonds. You need a narrative to make sense of the vicissitudes of fortune. Someone else has described sports teams as “cauldrons of bubbling emotion”, which seems an accurate description of the devastation that accompanies every loss and the elation of a win.

When it comes to professional rugby, you need a tale to tell the media and the fans. A coach with a facility for words and the ability to spin a convincing yarn has the edge.

The other thing that struck me about Dobson was, after matriculating from Bishops, he spent a year playing for the Elsie’s River club. Mixing with teammates who couldn’t afford proper boots and arrived in a taxi after a night shift at a factory gave him an insight into how most of SA lives.

Western Province is blessed with great diversity among its fan base. Credit then to the coach who makes an attempt to understand the circumstances of players who come from a very different background.


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