Roller coaster ride for SA rugby
Weekend Argus rugby reporter Gavin Rich looks at the 2010 season and hands out his awards
BACK in late January when the first feel of the new rugby season was carried on the hot summer winds in the form of a triangular tournament at Newlands, you would have risked being certified as crazy had you ventured to predict what has transpired during an unpredictable 2010.
The three teams involved in that event were the Stormers, Sharks and the Western Force.
The Stormers hadn’t featured in a Super Rugby semi-final in several years, so a place in the top four was the best most long-suffering Cape fans would have hoped for.
Yet their team ended up dominating the competition for much of the way before losing to the Bulls in the final.
The Sharks had no price back then, and were well beaten by both the Stormers and the Force.
They went on to lose their opening five matches in the Super 14. But they corrected their game and ended up winning the Currie Cup final nine months later, beating the Stormers’ domestic season identity, Western Province, in the final.
The Force were coached by New Zealander John Mitchell.
By the end of the season he was coach of the Lions, and what a huge stroke it was on that union’s part to employ him.
By October the Lions were showing signs of resurgence, and Mitchell showed that the Johannesburg union did have talent – that talent just needed to be coached.
Which is what you would say about South African rugby as a whole at the end of a season which started out with the nation’s rugby depth being underlined by the appearance of two local teams in the Super final but which ended with the Springbok coach being happy that his team lost by only six points to a scratch Barbarians outfit that had never trained together.
That there is talent here, and that there are good coaches, was abundantly evident in the Super 14 and again in the Currie Cup where the Sharks introduced a new way of playing to South African rugby.
But if you looked at the Springboks you would think that there was only testosterone and brawn and no guile and finesse, for it was a calamitous year at that level as all the misgivings about the weaknesses of having the players running the show were proved correct.
Even the finest and most experienced players need to have strong coaches driving them to safeguard against complacency and they also require tactical intelligence in the backroom staff to ensure that the team stays abreast of tactical innovations in a constantly evolving sporting code.
On both fronts the Boks were caught out this year, with the changes in the interpretation at the breakdown crying out for a shift to the approach that Peter de Villiers paid lip service to when he first arrived in the job.
Somehow, though, the Bok coaches, probably because a core of conservatively minded senior players were guiding them, did not show any sign of absorbing this, and by the end of the season, during their tour to the UK and Ireland, they seemed to be stampeding back to the past at an alarming rate.
If he had been coaching any other nation, or if he had been anyone other than the first black Bok coach, Peter de Villiers would certainly not have seen out the year.
There again, it’s hard to imagine that any other country would in the first place have appointed a candidate who came last in the technical tests held during the recruitment process.
Some argue that the World Cup is what it is all about and it is true that with their talent, the Boks can still catch a team like New Zealand with a sucker punch on a given day.
But to be recognised as true leaders in the game, which they should be given the talent available, it really isn’t enough to just produce the goods every fourth year at the World Cup.
With its massive talent pool available, South Africa should have reigned as world champions in style since 2007, but have failed to do so.
The decline of the standing of the World Cup champions was underlined by the fact that on the recent tour stadiums that were sold out several weeks before for the matches against the All Blacks were half empty for the Bok games.
The people responsible for that are not the Bok coaches but an administration filled mostly with people who are high on inexpertness but low on decisiveness and rugby knowledge.
Not that it was all bad, for there were some firsts in 2010 that should be celebrated, such as the playing of a Super 14 semi-final and final in Soweto plus the staging of a Springbok-All Black test at Soccer City in the nearby Nasrec region of Johannesburg.
At the end of 2010 though it is hard not to look back on the year and feel that all the strides forward were made by the provinces and franchises but those responsible for the national team were walking in the opposite direction.
My award for 2010 are as follows: Monty Python Flying Circus Award To the Saru administration who run the game in this country as competently as John Cleese’s fabled character Basil Fawlty ran Fawlty Towers. The Sinking of the Titanic Award The fault really lies with the people who appointed them, but it was nonetheless the Springbok coaches who allowed this magnificent ship to sail straight into an iceberg. The rhino hide award To the Springbok assistant coaches who went on tour to the UK and Ireland even though they had suffered the public humiliation of their head coach seeking alternatives. The foot in mouth award Who else but Div? It started even before the inter national season started when he railed through the media against his management team, thus sending out the message to the world that the Bok management group were anything but a harmonious bunch. Master-stroke of the year This goes to Dick Muir for bringing John Mitchell to South Africa. Fairytale of the year The Sharks started off as no-hopers and lost five on the trot in the beginning and yet were able to bounce back to win the Currie Cup in fine style. The rebuilder of the year John Plumtree told me before the Currie Cup that the competition was going to be all about rebuilding. If that is an example of rebuilding, maybe he should be employed to rebuild Baghdad. Coach of the year His team didn’t win any trophies but considering where they came from to compete in two major finals Allister Coetzee wins this one narrowly from Plumtree, whose coaching staff were responsible for the greatest innovation in 2010. Team of the year The Sharks reinvented the way they play and showed the national team the direction they should be heading. Provincial union of the year Western Province didn’t win senior trophies but they were represented in every final and won both age-group trophies. Man of the year award Rassie Erasmus for turning Cape rugby around. The what the heck happened to you lot award This goes to the Springbok Sevens team for following up their outstanding previous season by bombing spectacularly in the Sevens season completed in June. Coming to think of it, the senior Bok team should also qualify for this one. Party of the year The Sharks coaches were fun company into the wee hours of the morning following the Currie Cup final and had it not been for the early morning flight back to Cape Town that was booked I might still be there. But nothing quite beat the after-party following the Varsity Cup final in Stellenbosch. Did I say after-party? No, the whole event was a party, from start to finish. Newcomer of the year Pat Lambie Outstanding performer of the year He only played in the Super 14 but no South African rugby player was better in 2010 than Andries Bekker was for the Stormers. Try of the year The one that Bryan Habana finished off for the Stor mers against the Chiefs and which was played over and over again on television for several weeks afterwards. Low point of the year The two overseas games against New Zealand pip the loss to Scotland. The most ridiculous selection There were many at Springbok level, but the selection of Ryan Kankowski as a blindside flank and at the expense of a fetcher for a match against Australia and David Pocock was about as dumb as it gets. The put up and shut up award He is an intelligent man and an intelligent coach so goodness knows how Gary Gold still manages to keep himself from getting frustrated by some of the decisions that are made in his name. Most unedifying sight The Bok forwards high fiving one another after pushing the Barbarians off the ball in a scrum last week. It was a Barbarians match, for goodness sake, and in keeping with the Barbarians tradition the opposition had made so many replacements that their second row had become like a back row. Team performance of the year Stor mers beating Crusaders 42-14 was hard to beat. The Nature’s Gift Award This goes to whatever natural elements conspired to invite a swarm of bees onto the field as the Currie Cup semi-final in Durban was about to kick off. Some of the Bulls reckoned it put them off their focus. The how dumb can you be award To all those who failed to see the effect the law interpretations had on the way rugby is played and who then displayed their crass ignorance by accusing those who championed possession based rugby of making an about turn on their stance in 2009, when of course the laws were different and rugby was thus played differently. There again, the Bok management don’t seem to see it either…
ABOVE HIM ONLY SKY: Andries Bekker was outstanding in a season cut short by injury.
Coetzee… top coach
Habana… best try