Posts Tagged ‘Springboks’

Give Allister and Stick a sporting chance

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THE appointment of Allister Coetzee and Mzwandile Stick to the Springbok team represents an opportunity to align rugby with contemporary SA. Let’s not blow it.

Both bring considerable social and political capital. Each has proved himself to be a game-changer. At Western Province, Coetzee showed that you could field a team with eight or nine players of colour and still be the best in the country. In his eight years at the helm, he led the Stormers to the top of the South African conference three times, and won the Currie Cup twice.

Almost half the players in Stick’s Under-19 team, which went on to win the Under-19 Currie Cup, were black, most of them from the Eastern Cape.

Neither came from a culture that privileged whiteness, and they gave the lie to the prevailing wisdom in parts of South African rugby: that black players weaken a team and are the tax you pay to appease the politicians.

Stick grew up in a Port Elizabeth township with a mother who frequently struggled to put food on the table. He attended the local township school, and yet still managed to make it to the top, captaining the Sevens team that won the World Series title in 2008-09.

Coetzee grew up in Grahamstown. He has a vivid memory of watching white boys at nearby Kingswood College play rugby with the best equipment, while he had to walk to the much poorer coloured school down the road. His father died while he was very young and his mother struggled to provide for him and his three siblings.

 

 

ALTHOUGH a talented and ambitious scrumhalf, his race precluded him from playing for SA.

Stick and Coetzee reflect the tough life experiences common to the majority of South Africans, and their elevation to the upper echelons of the game must make it seem much more accessible than it has in the past.

Neither has a chip on the shoulder, or sees himself as a victim. Their victory against the odds they were born into shows character and emotional resilience.

These qualities came in handy when dealing with their respective managements.

Stick answered to the deeply dysfunctional Eastern Province Rugby Union, and Coetzee endured eight years of frequently erratic and interfering management under the Western Province Rugby Union.

But the pressures on the Springbok coach, in particular, are way more intense and, without proper support, Coetzee will struggle.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) has done well to appoint Coetzee and Stick. But it now needs to prove that this is not window-dressing. It needs to give their new Bok coach all the resources he needs to succeed. Otherwise, his appointment will be seen to be a cynical one, setting him up to fail.

Similar privileges to those accorded to Heyneke Meyer would be a good start.

Saru forked out substantial sums at the start of Meyer’s tenure to enable him to bring his own management team from the Bulls. He was then allowed to add more coaches, such as breakdown specialist, Richie Gray.

As yet, Coetzee does not appear to be similarly indulged. There is no evidence that he has picked any members of the team announced on Tuesday.

Given that he has already been disadvantaged by being appointed three-and-a-half months late, Saru needs to do all it can to help him, otherwise it risks being accused of not giving the same opportunities to a black coach as it gave to a white, Afrikaans one.

The corporate world should come to the party: any new sponsorship deals should be predicated on better governance, which would include equal opportunity for all employees, regardless of colour.

There has been talk of the Super Rugby coaches forming a Bok “selection committee”. This must be rapidly scotched. Meyer fought for — and won — the right to have ultimate say over selection. Rightly, he argued that if he were to be held responsible for winning every game, he needed to be able to pick his team.

The Super Rugby franchises need to play their part and put petty provincial rivalry aside.

The initiative introduced in Meyer’s term of systematically resting key Springbok players during Super Rugby must be continued.

Super Rugby coaches should also give more players of colour some proper game time to increase the pool available to Coetzee.

Fans need to give the new coaching team the benefit of the doubt. A bit of generosity of spirit would go a long way. Fans, particularly those who flock to Ellis Park for the iconic All Black derbies, should learn the first verses of the national anthem so that we are no longer subjected to the dramatic amplification of sound when English and Afrikaans verses are sung. It’s not that difficult. Make an effort.

 

 

DESPITE the autumn chill in the air, there is a sense of spring-time, of new beginnings, about rugby. Unlike Meyer, who looked to seasoned troops right from the start of his campaign, Coetzee will have to start afresh. Most of last year’s team have either retired, are approaching retirement, or are playing abroad.

This should not be a problem for Coetzee, who has proved that he is happy to trust youngsters.

Stick is something of a specialist in turning rookies into stars, given his track record with the Eastern Province Under-19s.

Transformation, which is viewed as a burden by Meyer, will come naturally to Coetzee.

At the Stormers, Coetzee displayed the ability effortlessly to forge racially and culturally diverse teams. Boys of colour were given every opportunity, but so were white players. Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Eben Etzebeth flourished in his time, as did Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni, and Nizaam Carr.

There is a good chance that, with Coetzee and Stick at the helm, the sense of marginalisation that has plagued black Springboks will be a thing of the past. Under Meyer, Afrikaans was used for team talks, which was alienating for black players. The new Bok set-up hopefully will better reflect our diversity of languages.

Stick’s Under-19s also brought a vibrant culture from their Eastern Cape schools — with traditional isiXhosa war and struggle songs borrowed from their elders.

Some infusion of this into Bok culture could only enrich it.

• McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok, and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

* This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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THE appointment of Allister Coetzee and Mzwandile Stick to the Springbok team represents an opportunity to align rugby with contemporary SA. Let’s not blow it. Both bring considerable social and political capital. Each has proved himself to be a game-changer. At Western Province, Coetzee showed that you could field a team with eight or nine […]

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Boks v All Blacks: it’s all in the margins

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Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and young Master Kolisi at their Guildford, Surrey, team hotel ahead of the Boks' semi-final clash against the All Blacks

Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and little Master Kolisi at the team hotel before the Boks’ semi-final against the All Blacks

KEY to the Springboks’ chances of beating the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal will be the message they are giving themselves. If they were to amass the evidence or listen to an objective third party, they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on Saturday morning.

The most recent reminder came a few days ago, when the Boks looked in mortal danger for much of the game of repeating their ignominious 2011 quarterfinal exit. A couple of hours later, the All Blacks danced through their own quarterfinal test against France, in total control.

They put in a sublime performance, showing equal mastery of defence and attack. There was never a second’s doubt as to who would rule the night.

Even more dispiriting is a glance of the Boks’ recent record against the All Blacks. In the past five encounters, they have only beaten them once.

In an attempt to counter this, they have come up with a new narrative. The key word is “margin”. We heard it first from Heyneke Meyer in the euphoria last Saturday evening.

“The margins are so small because most of the players play in Europe. There is a lot of IP (intellectual property) going around. Most of the coaches are world-class. We all study each other. Any one of the top eight countries can make it.”

This explanation nullifies the All Blacks’ exceptionalism and makes the field appear relatively even.

On Monday, the new narrative was reinforced by assistant defence coach, John MacFarland: “The last three games we’ve had with them have all come down to one score and one moment, so it’s up to us to produce that on Saturday as well,” he said.

And again by Pat Lambie: “The margins are so small at this level, particularly when you play against the All Blacks.”

I suspect Lambie was trotted out for an interview precisely because he personified the one occasion when the Boks reversed the margin in their favour with his penalty kick from 55m when the Boks were 24-25 down with two minutes left on the clock.

In fact, that win against the All Blacks — last year — was the only one in which the margin really was slim: the final score was 27-25. The other encounters, in which the All Blacks triumphed, were wider: 27-20 at Ellis Park last year: 14-10 in Wellington last year; 27-38 at Ellis Park in 2013; 29-15 in Auckland in 2013.

Reinterpreting these losses as close contests that could have gone either way will boost Bok morale and make the All Blacks appear less daunting.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Meyer repeated the margin mantra. “The margins over the couple of years have been small.”

But he was frank about the reason for stressing this: “We have to believe we can beat them, otherwise we’ll be wasting our time on Saturday.”

There is another subtle emotional shift that is cheering Meyer up. Having Fourie du Preez as captain is taking him back to a happy space.

It was with Du Preez at his side that he built the Bulls from a bunch of losers, languishing at the bottom of what was then the Super 12, into the best team in SA and the first (and only) South African team to win the Super Rugby trophy.

With Fourie, Meyer has experienced winning against all expectations and that is the emotional memory he appears to be invoking now.

“I have worked with Fourie since he was 19,” said Meyer at the post-game news conference on Saturday. “We were in desperation mode.

“Fourie is so driven, probably even more than me! He really wants to win. And his desperation rubs off on the team.”

As with the Bulls of yesteryear, the Boks have experienced a series of humiliating defeats but, phoenix-like, they appear to be rising from the ashes. On Wednesday, Meyer articulated it thus: “We had a very bad start at the beginning of this season. These 23 guys (who will make up Saturday’s squad) have been together under a huge amount of pressure since the beginning of the year.

“We stick together, coming through that adversity.”

It appears that, just at the crucial time, Meyer has found the chemistry he has been hankering after for the past four years: the recreation of the Bulls’ dynamic during the past decade.

Most of his coaching staff are from that era and now his key lieutenant is as well. And the Japan game has given them the excuse to revert to the game that served the Bulls so well: bash, barge and kick.

It helps the Boks’ chances, though, that Fourie du Preez has had international experience since he left the Bulls at the end of 2011.

Since then he has taken charge of his own career, refusing to rejoin a South African club in between Springbok and Japanese commitments. He has the confidence now to experiment, as was evident in the wonderful last-minute try he and Duane Vermeulen engineered, which took the Boks into the semifinals.

Lost (or found) in translation: English commentators call Lood de Jager “Lewd de Jaeger”. Schalk Burger becomes “Shulk”. But the most amusing was probably a Fourie du Preez response to a laboured question by a French reporter after the Wales win. Had the team come up with a name for this brilliantly innovative move so that they would more easily be able to repeat it, asked the Frenchman. No, said Du Preez, I just shouted: Duane, gaan links!

• This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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KEY to the Springboks’ chances of beating the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal will be the message they are giving themselves. If they were to amass the evidence or listen to an objective third party, they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on Saturday morning. The most recent reminder came a […]

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Fiddling while the jersey burns

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IN A speech in Durban a few days ago, South African Rugby Union (Saru) president Oregan Hoskins fingered schools as one of the stumbling blocks to transformation in the Springboks. Saru runs an annual budget of close on a billion rand.

All they have to do is channel some of that into the cash-strapped schools in the Eastern Cape bursting with black rugby talent and passion. Add a few high-performance academies to hone the skills of the front runners and then persuade its coaches to give all players of colour equal opportunity with white players and you’d soon see a lot more black Springboks.

To his credit, Hoskins took responsibility for not adequately supporting previous Springbok coaches. This presumably included Peter de Villiers, last seen presiding over the public burning of the Springbok jersey.

The furore over the paucity of black players in the 2015 Bok squad has been dismissed in some quarters as par for the course in a World Cup year. But this is nonsense.

The Rugby World Cup is a big deal: it’s when we show the world who we are — in technicolour. If, 20 years into democracy, we are still saying that excellence is white, it’s a problem, not least for the black kids dreaming of donning the green-and-gold.

Obviously, ideally, this should not blow up at World Cup time and should be dealt with on an ongoing basis. But it doesn’t look as if it is.

The men in charge of rugby continue to fiddle while the jersey burns. They are at present fiddling, yet again, with the Currie Cup format. The proposal on the table now seems to be that the Vodacom Cup will be abolished from next year and replaced with an extended Currie Cup.

Saru is not giving out any information but according to an apparently reliable report in Die Burger, from next year there will be 15 teams in the Currie Cup, which will include one from Namibia. In the first half of the year, the 14 unions plus Namibia will play each other in a newly constituted Currie Cup. The top nine will go on to play each other, while the remaining six will battle it out for a lesser title. This means an awful lot of Currie Cup rugby will be played during a protracted Super Rugby tournament.

Our 40-odd rugby schools and the Currie Cup are the bedrock of development in South African rugby. Schools are where rugby talent is developed. The Currie Cup is where promising young players are blooded for Super Rugby. This production line is important for professional rugby as more senior players head off overseas.

In 2012, the Currie Cup was altered to accommodate an extended Super Rugby campaign. Since then, SA’s oldest competition has haemorrhaged viewers and Absa is ending its sponsorship. Won’t more Currie Cup games from second-tier teams competing for viewers with Super Rugby diminish interest further?

More to the point, is this an appropriate use of Saru funds?

In its constitution, adopted in 2009, Saru states as an objective:

•  5.1 applying its income, directly and indirectly, for the promotion, development, support, upliftment, administration and playing of rugby in SA;

•  5.2 pursuing policies and programmes, at national and all other levels, aimed at redressing imbalances of the past and creating a genuinely nonracial, nonpolitical and democratic dispensation for rugby in SA;

•  5.3 adopting and enacting such measures as will foster, promote, regulate and encourage the playing of rugby and provide facilities for rugby in SA, and in any other territory as may be decided upon, for all persons, irrespective of race, colour, creed or gender, and to eliminate any discrimination and inequality among players and officials alike;

If it is to honour its own constitution, should a large chunk of Saru’s millions go into supporting the small-town fiefdoms that run these second-tier teams? Or into paying player squads, most of whom will be white and whose development will have been paid for by the schools mentioned by Mr Hoskins?

What would make more sense is to confine the Currie Cup to the Super Rugby franchises. The small unions should be playing semi-professional rugby, relying on local sponsorship for funds. Saru should be applying its income to funding a development campaign in areas where there is abundant black rugby talent.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how the Bok transformation issue is playing out in the political landscape.

The burning of the Springbok jersey accompanied the launch of a new organisation, Supporters Against Racist Rugby Associations, in Mossel Bay. The Western and Eastern Cape are the sites for some of the most closely fought battles between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). These are also the provinces that host the most black talent and experience the most frustration among black fans.

One of the most thoughtful recent political interventions came from DA shadow spokesman on sport Solly Malatsi. In an oped article, he outlined the importance of a systematic overhaul of rugby development. If the ANC drops the ball, perhaps the DA will pick it up?

• This column first appeared in Business Day

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IN A speech in Durban a few days ago, South African Rugby Union (Saru) president Oregan Hoskins fingered schools as one of the stumbling blocks to transformation in the Springboks. Saru runs an annual budget of close on a billion rand. All they have to do is channel some of that into the cash-strapped schools […]

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If transformation goes any slower, it will go backwards

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I TAKE my hat off to the seven Springboks who went to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with their concerns about transformation. It takes a lot of courage to do that from within the ranks of rugby.

Usually players speak out only after they have finished with the game because they know that if they do so while within it, they can say goodbye to their careers. Already a witch-hunt for names has started.

I hope Cosatu can protect them. But I hope too that the South African Rugby Players’ Association gets on board. So far, at least in public, its response has been muted, apparently going along with the South African Rugby Union’s (Saru’s) assurances.

It should take note of the fact that black players did not feel able to go to it with their concerns.

Saru’s response to the players was to restate its position. “Saru recently signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the government and Sascoc (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee) on a strategic transformation plan for rugby. Our focus now is on delivering on our understanding with them and we will continue to engage with sports leadership in the country on our progress.”

A closer look at this transformation plan reveals that it is already showing cracks. It says the principal objective in this World Cup year is to: “Engage (the) national coach to increase black player representation to 30% (seven players in a squad of 23). From the seven generic black players two must be black Africans.”

The four-year aim of the plan, which is timeline-based with interim targets, is to “increase black participation in the Springbok team to 50% by 2019″.

At Kings Park on Saturday, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Bryan Habana were yet again trotted out as the sole representatives of black South African rugby talent. On the bench were Trevor Nyakane, Siya Kolisi and Lwazi Mvovo, meaning exactly five black players in the match-day squad, as there have been in each of the Tests this year.

Even after the Cosatu intervention and for a relatively meaningless non-Test game against Argentina this Saturday, there are still only five black players in the match-day 23.

Scarra Ntubeni, who was the best hooker in South African Super Rugby this year, has not even made the bench this season and has clearly been usurped as third-choice hooker by Schalk Britz. Elton Jantjies, the in-form Super Rugby flyhalf, has also been sidelined.

If our promising young black players are not being given regular game time at this level now, the next target — 50% of black Springboks by 2019 — also looks like a chimera.

I have heard complaints about marginalisation from black players for years, at provincial and national level. If the strategic transformation plan were effective, marginalisation should be a thing of the past.

We have not heard any protest from Saru president Oregan Hoskins about the breach of the plan’s targets in the Springbok teams. Nor from Saru CEO Jurie Roux.

Is there an intention to monitor its implementation? Will failure to meet targets incur meaningful sanctions? And, if so, will there be transparency about the process?

When the plan was launched earlier this year there was much talk of a brave new world in rugby. Hoskins talked of “a watershed moment for our sport”. Roux said: “Transformation is a critical business imperative in SA and if we had not taken this new approach to what had been an organic process up until recently, we would have put our sport in peril of becoming marginalised.”

So far, there is little evidence of establishment push behind this “new approach”.

Saru has just announced it is cutting funding to three of the four academies set up to produce black high-performance talent. This will further narrow the pipeline for emerging stars.

The poor attendance at Kings Park last week — despite the fact that it was a Test in a Rugby World Cup year — speaks to the failure to spread the game beyond the white minority. The paucity of black rugby heroes on the field means fewer black people are drawn to attend games.

Accounts of racist abuse by some fans at Ellis Park the week before were inadequately dealt with by the authorities, which hardly makes black fans feel safe and welcome. And the cost of tickets puts the game beyond the reach of most South Africans.

In the coaching structures there appears to have been minimal transformation. There is not one black head coach in any of the significant teams: Springboks, Sevens, under-20 or Super Rugby.

Saru can get away with being opaque and high-handed because it is accountable to no one but itself.

But I was surprised by recent tweets from Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula: “Full transformation not gonna emerge over night bcos we are going to WC (World Cup).”

Perhaps the minister, who has previously been strongly proactive in his demands for transformation, knows something I don’t. I can only imagine this must be the case because he will be fully alive to the anger coursing through social media from fans who feel that if transformation goes any slower it will go backwards.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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I TAKE my hat off to the seven Springboks who went to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with their concerns about transformation. It takes a lot of courage to do that from within the ranks of rugby. Usually players speak out only after they have finished with the game because they know […]

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The first Muslim Springbok

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IMG_0499RAMADAN starts on Thursday and that poses a challenge for one of the players on whom SA is relying this Saturday to salvage a bit of national pride from this year’s disappointing Super Rugby campaign.

Nizaam Carr, the first Muslim to have captained a Super Rugby team — last week against the Sharks — will this Saturday have to fill the big boots of Duane Vermeulen, who has been forced out with a neck injury. If the Stormers beat the Brumbies, they have a shot at making the Super Rugby finals.

Carr will enter the fray on an empty stomach. He will have been up before dawn to down a protein shake and some steak and pasta but by the time he runs out onto the field at Newlands at 5pm, he will not have eaten for several hours. Over the next month, he is likely to lose between 8kg and 12kg.

It is tough, he says, but manageable. He doesn’t feel that it affects his performance. His faith provides all the push he needs.

It is hard to believe that Carr is just 24. Rugby has both brought him fantastic opportunity and required exceptional emotional adaptability and resilience. His was not the usual path to the high road via a traditional rugby school. He grew up in Mitchell’s Plain.

His family later moved to Crawford and he attended Alexander Sinton High, a good state school but not one that offered rugby. He played on Saturdays for the Primrose club and, at the age of 15, he was spotted by a scout from Bishops and offered a bursary.

Bishops, the home of Anglicanism and old money, was worlds away from what he was used to and at first he struggled to fit in. But over the four years he was there, he learnt to take advantage of the fantastic facilities on offer.

At Alexander Sinton, there would be 45 kids in a class, whereas at Bishops, there might be 10. More than that, he told me, “they opened up my eyes to how successful you could be if you just worked hard”. After school, he sailed into the University of Cape Town, where he played for the Ikey Tigers in the Varsity Cup. From there, he was recruited into the Western Province Under-19s and Under-21s and, eventually the Currie Cup and Super Rugby teams.

Throughout, he has had to perform the difficult balancing act of remaining true to his religious beliefs while proving himself a team player in a very different culture.

At Bishops, he says, he had to explain why he could eat only halaal food. Another challenge he has had to grapple with is the drinking culture in rugby. It was hard at first, he says, and he felt he didn’t fit in. But he learnt to adapt and now happily sits through team dinners nursing a coke while his teammates get merry. He recognises that it is part of team building, he says, and he can’t slink away.

His teammates ensure he doesn’t feel the odd man out. After they won the Currie Cup last year, he took them all to a mosque and then to a halaal restaurant.

What he is desperate for now, like every other player in Super Rugby, is a spot in the Rugby World Cup squad. Carr, who last year became the first Muslim in the democratic era to pull on a Springbok jersey, is competing against a plethora of excellent loose forwards.

Carr’s articulate and confident defence of his religious rights highlights the question of freedom of religion. Christianity is central to South African rugby. Most teams pray before games. Some players and coaches offer a nod to God at media conferences.

Players and coaches have told me that prayers are about asking for protection from injury for both sides. And it promotes team spirit.

That’s all fine as long as it is acknowledged that the supreme being appears in different forms to different people — if they believe in one at all — and conformity to a particular religion doesn’t become a prerequisite for inclusion.

As far as openness in religion goes, I’d say that young Nizaam Carr offers a good example. He doesn’t proselytise but he does try to educate people about Islam: for instance, that the impression created by some media that it is a religion of extremists who yearn to join groups such as Islamic State is wrong.

This year, he and a partner opened a sports academy in Lansdowne. For now, it offers only Grades 8 and 9 and there are just 45 pupils. The academic curriculum runs from 8am to 3pm. After that there is intensive training in rugby, soccer and cricket. He is in charge of the rugby. Talented kids from poor backgrounds get scholarships and his own sponsor provides all the kit for free. It’s about giving back, he says.

His academy, the Cape Sports Academy, is not only for Muslims. “We have boys from all over,” he says proudly. “We have an African kid and a Jewish one.”

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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RAMADAN starts on Thursday and that poses a challenge for one of the players on whom SA is relying this Saturday to salvage a bit of national pride from this year’s disappointing Super Rugby campaign. Nizaam Carr, the first Muslim to have captained a Super Rugby team — last week against the Sharks — will […]

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Taking the Bulls by the horns

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ONE of the most comprehensive makeovers of any South African sporting institution was undertaken by Heyneke Meyer at the turn of the century. He transformed the Blue Bulls from an underperforming, amateur outfit into a successful professional business. And he is building on the strategies honed at the Bulls to take the Springboks into the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The organisational principles Meyer instituted could apply to any modern business: a flattened, relatively transparent leadership group; a culture which prioritised the goals of the team above those of the individual and the systematic development of fresh talent to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organisation.

When Meyer was appointed head coach of the Bulls in 2001 rugby had already been professional for five years but the Bulls had not caught up. Their coaches had traditionally been drawn from the ranks of the South African Defence Force and the University of Pretoria. Their player group was dominated by the fading stars of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

There was a poor work ethic. Senior players demanded fag-like obeisance from the younger players. Gym was slipshod and amateurish, with wives and girlfriends frequently joining in, which meant there was more preening than pruning. The ruling ethos was army-style: hierarchical and authoritarian.

And their rugby was awful. In 2000 their Currie Cup team was so poor it was relegated to the B division. In Super Rugby they languished at the bottom of the league.

Meyer’s strategy was to invest in a first-class management team that was capable of recruiting and developing promising young rugby players and turning them into Springboks. Where previous practice had been to blow most of the budget on buying star players, under Meyer the focus was on building the institutional capacity to create star players.

The first thing he did was to cull 11 of the 16 Springboks he inherited and drastically cut the salaries of those who remained, such as Joost van der Westhuizen. The money saved went into a recruiting drive for coaches and young talent. The average age of players dropped from 29 to 23.

The tradition in rugby at the time was to appoint a head coach assisted by a backline and forwards coach, each of whom aspired to succeed the head coach. Meyer positioned himself differently: he was leader and co-ordinator of a team of specialists, each of whom had to know more about their field of expertise than he did.

Thus he sought expert kicking, conditioning, defence and attack coaches and then persuaded the Bulls management to employ them. He was also the first coach to insist on a dedicated team doctor to ensure consistent treatment and management of one of rugby’s biggest problems: injuries.

As Marco Botha records in his book, Coach, there was a divisive, envious culture at the Bulls prior to Meyer’s arrival. The under-19 coach hoped that the under-21 coach would mess up so that he could get his job. And the under-21 coach was secretly gunning for the Currie Cup coach’s job. It was the same with the players: each man was in it for himself.

There was little consistency in the style of rugby played by the Bulls teams. A player would have to adjust to different scrumming, tackling or kicking tactics each time he progressed to a more senior team. Under Meyer, everyone employed or contracted by the Bulls was a cog in the machine and either they all pulled in the same direction or they were out.

 

 

Coaches at every level reported directly to Meyer and he thus ensured that teams played the same style of rugby. Specialists from the senior team were deployed to junior teams to ensure their coaches were all instilling the same techniques.

If a spate of injuries meant Meyer needed to fast-track an under-21 player to the senior team, he could be confident that the boy would fit in seamlessly.

It has to be said that Meyer was fortunate in that his tenure coincided with effective leadership at the top. Bulls CEO Barend van Graan bought into Meyer’s vision and backed him all the way, which mainly meant persuading the board to support Meyer and finding the funds to pay his unprecedentedly large coaching team.

Under Van Graan, the Bulls remain the best run union in the country. Despite the fact that rugby has been professional for two decades, South African rugby still tends towards the clubbish and secretive.

Van Graan, alone among union CEOs, keeps his office door ajar, literally and figuratively. Without this kind of openness, it is unlikely Meyer would have been able to achieve what he did.

And his achievements were remarkable: he not only transformed the management model and culture, he also set the Bulls off on a winning streak. They won the Currie Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004. They reached the semifinals of Super Rugby in 2005 and 2006 and, in 2007, became the first South African team to win the Super Rugby title.

Meyer realised that he needed to be looking to the future as well. Management teams can be relied on to last, but players wear out fast. By the age of 35 — unless they are Victor Matfield who is still playing at the age of 37 — they are past their sell-by dates.

Meyer is clear about what he looks for when he is recruiting: “Character. Mental toughness. After three playing sessions, I can tell you which player will make it and which not. After tough sessions, guys who walk out and sit out will always sit out when it’s tough.

“I also look at their upbringing: when I interview youngsters, it is usually with both their parents. Now, 90% of the time, the mother will want them to be in the hostel: their washing must be done and they must study. The father just wants them to play rugby.”

“You get kids who, in an hour’s conversation, don’t say a word. The parents speak for him. Clearly he can’t express himself. He’s never been able to fight for himself,” Meyer says.

The characteristics Meyer looks for would equally apply to an employee in any other business: self-reliance, discipline, a strong work ethic, a team player and, above all, emotional resilience. The ability to overcome setbacks and come back stronger.

 

 

Again, though, he recognised that recruiting was a speciality and he employed someone else to focus on it. The man he chose, Ian Schwartz, created a database of promising young players throughout the country and built up relationships with school coaches, agents and parents to ensure the Bulls were their first choice once they had matriculated.

Schwartz, along with almost the entire management team originally recruited by Meyer for the Bulls, is now with the Springboks. This was a precondition for Meyer’s acceptance of the job.

“Most of the best coaches in the country were at the Bulls,” he says. “I know because I spent 10 years getting them in.”

So it is the Bulls culture which dominates the national team.

This is largely a good thing. They are highly professional and dedicated. They are also modest, unassuming men who espouse another Meyer dictum: the Japanese philosophy of kaizen — continuous progress and improvement.

This is usually infinitesimal in scale but, incrementally, it amounts to a continuing capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and thus stay on top.

As in every workplace with a strong internal culture, there is the danger of narrowness: Afrikaans is too often used in team talks, which is alienating for black players.

The challenges Meyer faces now are different to those he faced at the Bulls: he does not have control over the workload or the game plans of his players when they are not on national duty.

But, being Heyneke Meyer, he has not let this defeat him. He has worked hard on his relationships with Super Rugby coaches in an attempt to get them to implement similar techniques, sending his specialist coaches to spend time with the Super Rugby franchises.

He has also achieved what no other Springbok coach has, which is an agreement that top Springboks will be periodically rested by their franchises in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup in September.

It’s all about winning, whatever it takes.

• This article first appeared in Business Day

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ONE of the most comprehensive makeovers of any South African sporting institution was undertaken by Heyneke Meyer at the turn of the century. He transformed the Blue Bulls from an underperforming, amateur outfit into a successful professional business. And he is building on the strategies honed at the Bulls to take the Springboks into the […]

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Wanted: another coach for Dale College

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JORICH Loubser matriculated last year with six As and, like many thousands of other 18-year-olds, he will soon be starting at university. Next week Jorich will register for a BCom in accounting at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He was awarded a small rugby bursary by the UCT Rugby Club and has already begun training with their under-20s.

What sets Jorich apart is that he is a white Afrikaner who was educated at a predominantly black school, Dale College, in King William’s Town. Having coffee with him this week, he struck me as a particularly heartening example of a born-free white youth.

I’ve been following Dale College for several years because it seems to me to provide a litmus test for development.

Potential Springboks are spotted and nurtured at schools. So if we want more black Springboks it’s obvious that we need to put resources into predominantly black, rugby-playing schools. Dale is perfect for this: it is well run and, courtesy of its origins as a school for the sons of British officers during the Border wars, has excellent, if increasingly shabby, infrastructure. But it suffers from being situated in a badly administered, poverty-stricken province.

When I first went to Dale in 2010 it had one full-time rugby coach, a very basic gym and no help at all from either the Department of Sport and Recreation or South African Rugby Union (Saru). Unlike other predominantly rugby schools, its old boys, who were then still mostly white, were largely uninterested.

The Border Union, the local representative of Saru and responsible for development in the area, was bankrupt. The president, African National Congress heavyweight Phumlani Mkolo, has been charged with the alleged abuse of funds meant for Nelson’s Mandela’s funeral. The union is now being administered by Saru head office.

Jorich, who was head boy of Dale last year, is a good advertisement for it. He is passionate about the school and has an intelligent insider’s view of its strengths and weaknesses. He brushes off questions about race: he says of course he was aware of the fact that he was a different colour to most of his classmates, but that it didn’t affect either his perception of them, or theirs of him. His best mate had a Zulu mother and Xhosa father. His girlfriend is the sister of Bulls player Bjorn Basson.

There have been some positive developments at Dale College, he says.

There has been a surge of interest from more recent alumni, who are less interested in race. Old boys now fund about 40 bursaries a year. This is for both tuition and hostel fees so it comes to about R40,000 a year per boy.

Boys from poorer backgrounds benefit greatly from being in the hostel because it means they get proper nutrition and don’t have to struggle to find the money for transport to get to practice and games.

This year the Department of Sport and Recreation has designated Dale a “sports focus” school, which means it will be funded to help 15 poorer, feeder schools in their area. Probably the most important initiative, though, is from Cricket SA (CSA). Rugby is Dale’s headline sport but the school is also a breeding ground for cricketers. CSA is now sponsoring two bursaries but, even more importantly, it is funding a full-time coach. In the brief time the CSA coach has been there, he has made a big difference to Dale cricket — last year they were unbeaten in both the Eastern and Western Cape.

CSA involvement has also stimulated a new interest in the game and more boys are being drawn in. Last year, for instance, an interclass tournament was initiated that meant every boy got to play on the A-field, giving the coach the opportunity to unearth previously unidentified talent. If CSA can fund a coach for Dale, surely Saru can too?

Jorich, who played lock for the first team, says Dale needs coaches who can improve their technical skills — a kicking coach and a conditioning coach, for example. Dale boys tend to be smaller, so good conditioning is crucial.

The school also needs a war chest to fend off predatory private schools. Dale’s rugby stars are constantly being lured to richer schools that need to boost their black player numbers. Dale can’t compete with private schools, which offer not only full boarding and tuition fees but also enticements such as generous allowances and rugby kit. Perhaps some companies could come on board and help fund such a chest?

Jorich points out that the only Dale player in the past few years who has profited from migration to a richer school is Stormers player Scarra Ntubeni, who went to KES in Grade 10. Mostly, they do not thrive.

It would be far healthier for pupils, and for the school itself, to strengthen Dale and let its boys reach their full potential in a familiar environment, where they are not valued purely for their prowess on the rugby field.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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JORICH Loubser matriculated last year with six As and, like many thousands of other 18-year-olds, he will soon be starting at university. Next week Jorich will register for a BCom in accounting at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He was awarded a small rugby bursary by the UCT Rugby Club and has already begun […]

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Springboks, the cash cows flogged to support a bloated Saru

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NOW that the Springboks’ disappointing performance last month has been thoroughly picked over, perhaps it is time to look at the contribution of rugby’s off-field team to this demoralising episode and, hopefully, learn some lessons from it.

Last year, the Springboks played 12 games. This year, an extra two were loaded on to what was already a heavy schedule. In the last, disastrous Wales game on November 29, the Boks looked worn out, which was hardly surprising. Most of them had been playing one high-intensity, all-or-nothing game after another since Super Rugby began in February, 10 months earlier. The effect of this on their bodies was brought home by the devastating injury suffered by Jean de Villiers, whom Heyneke Meyer had days earlier identified as the one man critical to SA’s chances of winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

To add to the problems, the large squad felt messy: there were too many players brought along for the ride, never even getting a shot at warming the bench. There were too many black faces in this contingent not to suspect some window-dressing. But for all the passengers in the squad, both black and white, it must have been a disheartening experience.

There were questions as to why Meyer didn’t include more newcomers in his match-day squads, particularly against Italy. I think the answer lies with the off-field team.

The performance indicators in Meyer’s contract are all about winning every game. Development — racial or otherwise — will not win him a second term.

So, why did the South African Rugby Union (Saru) insist on the Boks adding on the Wales game to their schedule after the international Test window was over? The risks of this additional burden outweighed any advantage to the team.

Next year is the most important year in world rugby. Surely preparation for that should have been uppermost in everyone’s minds?

The Boks had already played Wales twice this year, so they were not gaining experience against a little-known opponent. Meyer had already had three games in which to test players’ ability to adapt to wet weather. The inevitable downside — the damage done to the Springbok brand and to team morale by a humiliating loss that will haunt them for another six months until they get a chance to redeem themselves — is huge.

The answer is money. Saru was reportedly paid £750,000 for the Wales game. When Jurie Roux, the CEO of Saru, announced that the two additional games — against the World XV in June and Wales in November — he said the extra income earned would go towards funding preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Have the Springboks not already earned their keep, then? A look at Saru 2013 annual report shows its turnover for 2013 as just under R800m.

Almost of all Saru’s income is from two sources: sponsors — chief among them Absa — and the sale of broadcasting rights.

A mere R194m is allocated to “high performance”, the category that includes the Springboks, the Springbok Sevens and the Springbok Women’s team, and that sum is split among all three teams. So less than an eighth of Saru’s income goes to the team which attracts the bulk of it.

Springboks? Cash cows might be a more appropriate name. They are being flogged to the limit in order to keep afloat a bloated organisation.

My (very modest) New Year’s wishes for South African rugby are that:

• Saru transforms itself into a rational, streamlined, visionary organisation in which all its constituent parts forget self-interest and work together for the greater good of rugby;

• Saru sets the professionals free to get on with the business of producing world-beating teams that make all South Africans proud;

• The smaller unions and the clubs attached to the Super Rugby franchises stop living off the earnings of the professionals and dedicate themselves instead to semiprofessional and amateur rugby. They could have a huge role to play in restoring club rugby to its former glory — with all the concomitant benefits to the community — but for that to happen, they have to give up their pretensions of professionalism; and

• Saru and all its stakeholders think through what it means to be a flagship South African brand in 2015 and then formulate an effective policy to make it happen, starting from the top down. The Springbok coach needs to be contractually incentivised to select and develop a more racially diverse team, as do the Super Rugby coaches.

Saru should acknowledge that channelling development, particularly of black players, through its constituent unions does not work.

Saru should come up with a better plan for nurturing and promoting black rugby talent.

It is pointless waiting for the government to sort out education and school sport. Saru should take the lead.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

 

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NOW that the Springboks’ disappointing performance last month has been thoroughly picked over, perhaps it is time to look at the contribution of rugby’s off-field team to this demoralising episode and, hopefully, learn some lessons from it. Last year, the Springboks played 12 games. This year, an extra two were loaded on to what was […]

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Too true, Archbishop Tutu!

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imagesRUGBY, like any other high profile sport, is about heroes. This is good, because we need heroes. Boys, for instance, will look at the guy in the Springbok jersey, note his extraordinary skill and athleticism; his loyalty to team and country; his magnetic capacity to attract adoration, money and pretty girls and think: I want to be him.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about how, given SA’s world record-breaking levels of inequality, it was so much harder for black boys to become Springboks — and acquire the accompanying hero status (A tale of two would-be rugby Springboks — Johannes and Fikile, September 4)

One of the many responses I got was from another international hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He wrote: “Of course, she is right, that we need the transformation of our society. But you do have black players who have emerged and it is up to us to nurture them as we seek to transform society. Precisely because they have made it against such formidable odds, they should be treasured. Even when they are obviously better than their white counterparts, they have white players who have all the advantages she mentions picked ahead of them.

“You have the (Siya) Kolisis, etc, who, precisely because they have come out of the morass of disadvantage, should be snapped up. Her argument seems to be that we should wait until, as it were, the fields have been levelled before we can demand that more black players are picked.

“Of course, we must transform SA and in the meantime pick those who have made it against all odds. They should be rewarded for their remarkable tenacity.”

I was pleased to get this, partly because some of the other responses I got were along the lines of: oh well, we are off the hook now. Until the government gets round to feeding and educating black boysproperly, we can’t have more black Springboks.

Which is not what I meant at all.

But mainly I’m delighted that someone of Tutu’s stature is engaging in the debate about transformation ahead of our next big milestone — the 2015 Rugby World Cup — and I hope he continues to do so.

Tutu’s credentials for this debate are impeccable: not only did he play rugby but he is also intimately acquainted with the hardships of growing up black and poor under apartheid.

“Tutu joined the most junior of the school’s rugby teams (the Johannesburg Bantu High School in Western Native Township), his slightness dictating that he play scrumhalf. This was the beginning of a life-long love of the sport: on Saturdays, carrying sandwiches made by his mother, he caught a train on his own to the original Ellis Park rugby ground in Johannesburg and, from the small pen set aside for black spectators, watched Transvaal rugby heroes such as Jan Lotz,” Tutu’s biographer, John Allen, records in Rabble-rouser for Peace.

Allen goes on to describe how Tutu was sent to stay with an uncle closer to his school when his parents could no longer afford the train fare. He shared a backyard shack with two to five others at a time and had to wash at a communal outdoor cold tap. Much of his and his fellow pupils’ time outside the classroom went into finding food.

Like Nelson Mandela, Tutu displayed an early and extraordinary magnanimity towards the then recalcitrant white rugby community. Unlike Mandela, who was largely politically motivated, Tutu’s love of rugby also kicked in.

At the Springboks’ first game in the 1995 Rugby World Cup — against Australia at Newlands — the Springboks gave Tutu a No24 jersey. Afterwards, he told Die Burger that, if the Boks won, he wouldwalk down Adderley Street wearing the jersey. A promise he duly went on to fulfil after that historic victory in the final against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, where Tutu was once confined to the hokkie set aside for “bantus”.

There is a back story to each of the men about to don Springbok jerseys for next month’s end-of-year tour to Europe and it is mostly far from glamorous. Obviously, great natural talent is a starting point, but what gets any player to the point where he is good enough to represent his country is hard work, sacrifice and discipline.

Above all, it is about determination and perseverance in the face of the many obstacles that will block the paths of any aspirant Springbok: failure, rejection, injury. The ability to absorb these setbacks and nevertheless continue to pursue the dream is what marks out anyone who makes it to the top in the highly competitive world of professional sport.

As Tutu points out, the black players from poor backgrounds who have made it into rugby’s highest ranks have displayed extraordinary tenacity. This means that they possess in buckets one of the more important characteristics of a top rugby player. That alone should give them added value to a Bok team.

On top of that is the hope and inspiration it gives to thousands of other poor black boys dreaming of joining the ranks of their heroes.

 

 

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RUGBY, like any other high profile sport, is about heroes. This is good, because we need heroes. Boys, for instance, will look at the guy in the Springbok jersey, note his extraordinary skill and athleticism; his loyalty to team and country; his magnetic capacity to attract adoration, money and pretty girls and think: I want […]

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Empty seats packed with meaning

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ONE of the overriding images of the pool stages of 2014 Currie Cup — now reaching its climax with semifinals this weekend — is of empty stadiums. Often the rugby played is exciting and SuperSport does its bit with ever-enthusiastic commentary, but there are few takers. These are local teams playing at local stadiums, yet local fans cannot be bothered to get themselves there to watch.

It must be dispiriting for the players on the field witnessed only by the blank gaze of row upon row of empty seats. The most spectacular tries are rewarded only by a smattering of applause, all that can be mustered by the few fans present. The fantasy of legions of fanatically loyal local fans, ostensibly the bedrock of provincial rugby and a major justification for its existence, is exposed as just that. Nor are many watching the Currie Cup on TV — viewing figures are substantially down.

It is hugely expensive to stage these games. Stadiums must be maintained, a phalanx of staff must be paid for on game days including referees, medical teams, ticket collectors, ushers and security guards. Teams must be flown around the country and put up in hotels.

It raises the question: can rugby afford it? And, even if it can, would the millions spent not be better spent elsewhere? The fact that the Premiership Division of the Currie Cup has been extended to buy off small unions so that they would agree to the inclusion of the Southern Kings in Super Rugby (more Currie Cup and more Super Rugby) has not helped matters.

The Currie Cup has historically occupied a special place in the collective heart of the rugby community: during the isolation years, it was the competition that kept local white rugby alive. Provincial unions had to work hard to keep their fan base on board because it was turnstile traffic that kept them financially afloat.

But the professional era — now almost 20 years old — changed all that. The provincial unions now rely on their share of the SuperSport income to keep the game going. There is little incentive to spread the game locally because the money will keep on rolling in, no matter how ineffectual they are.

Crowds at the First Division games — those played in Welkom, Wellington, Potchefstroom, George, Kimberley and East London — are particularly sparse.

One of the arguments used to justify the continued funding of the smaller unions is that they unearth talent that would otherwise go unnoticed. But this happens so seldom — and at such a cost to the rugby fiscus — that it hardly seems worth the outlay. And what this argument ignores is that it is the rugby schools that unearth and nurture rugby talent. The unions just piggyback on it.

The top Currie Cup layer — the Premiership — plays a more viable role because it provides a platform for the blooding of younger players before promotion to Super Rugby.

Serious questions should be asked about the First Division’s viability as a professional league. Although the bottom line  is that no matter how irrational and wasteful the current system is, it will not change because the 14 unions have entrenched their rights in a constitution only they can change.

But reform may yet be forced upon them from within their own ranks. The Super Rugby franchises are growing increasingly frustrated with the current division of spoils. It is the Springbok games that command by far the highest TV audiences. The Springboks’ main base are the Super Rugby franchises they are contracted to and who pay the bulk of their salaries. And this is not insubstantial: top Boks command R4m at some franchises.

The current distribution of the joint South African Rugby Union pot of about R700m does not give the Super Rugby franchises anywhere near enough to meet their financial obligations. Yet their Boks are only available to the franchises for the first half of the year.

This year, for the first time, 20 key Springboks are not available for the Currie Cup play-offs because they are being rested and conditioned for the upcoming November Tests. But if they are injured during the Tests, it is their franchises who will lose out when Super Rugby starts.

Surely those empty seats should constitute some sort of a wake-up call?

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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ONE of the overriding images of the pool stages of 2014 Currie Cup — now reaching its climax with semifinals this weekend — is of empty stadiums. Often the rugby played is exciting and SuperSport does its bit with ever-enthusiastic commentary, but there are few takers. These are local teams playing at local stadiums, yet […]

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