Meyer must allow the Joneses to help him out
IF YOU juxtapose some of the things that Eddie Jones said at his first press conference as Stormers coach with some of what was said by Heyneke Meyer as his Springbok squad was preparing to return home from the World Cup, the contrast is stark.
The one Meyer utterance that sticks in the minds of many Bok fans is the one where he justified the overreliance on kick- and- chase and defence orientation on the poor skills of South African players. Meyer was in charge of the Boks for four years, so if there is a skills shortage, isn’t that his fault?
Jones might have some sympathy with Meyer. He agreed that his vision of the Stormers embracing a new attacking game with his stamp on it would only come to fruition if the coaches lower down in the Western Province food chain bought into and understood what he is trying to do. Which is really what Meyer was trying to say the morning after the bronze playoff game in London.
One of the sanest and most proactive suggestions I have seen from anyone with a rugby brain that relates to the South African situation came this week from Brendan Venter. The doctor and coach called for a pow-wow of all the top coaches and stakeholders to discuss the way forward and the game that the Boks should embrace in order to make them successful. He effectively argued that change at the top would be meaningless if there wasn’t change through all the other levels.
The man in charge of the national team cannot operate in isolation and forge his own way without buy-in from the coaches of the teams that feed the elite squad, and it is the same with Jones at the Stormers. One year working with the top Stormers players won’t translate into success the following season if those players are injured and have to be replaced by players who haven’t had their skills developed to the Jones requirements.
That, though, doesn’t excuse Meyer and Jones appeared to confirm in our interview on Thursday that the Bok coach is the product of a rugby culture that, perhaps because there is such a ready supply of raw talent coming through, doesn’t focus enough on encouraging coaches to be what they are employed to do. Which is to coach flaws out of players so they make for better and more complete performers.
“In South Africa I think there has been a tendency to pigeon-hole players,” said Jones. “There is a steady supply of talent, so very quickly a coach will decide that a talented player coming through has some flaw in his game and then he will be dispensed with in favour of the next player on the conveyor-belt.
“They will say ‘he can’t pass’ or ‘he can’t kick’ so they’ll get rid of him instead of working with him.
“In Australia it is different, because you just don’t have a big supply line of players, so you have to work with a player who is flawed and remove those flaws through coaching. It is even more that way in Japan. An example of a South African player who does have a weakness is Eben Etzebeth. He can’t pass. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be taught to pass.”
Jones succeeded in Japan and in Australia where many South African coaches have failed just because in those countries he didn’t have the luxury of a pipeline of talented school kids who could be tried and then quickly discarded if somehow they weren’t equipped with a complete set of skills (whatever that might mean in the South African context).
Which brings up the defeatist attitude that lay beneath Meyer’s lament that South African players lack skills.
Again, as one who has been crying out for foreign influence in the top local coaching structures for as long as I can remember loving a Durban curry, what Jones said brought both music and confirmation to these ears.
“No one is naturally skilful. Everyone has to be coached or taught and there is no reason why South African players can’t be skilful,” said Jones.
“It does make it harder when you get to this point (professional rugby), it is easier to teach kids, and that really is where it should be starting, but it is possible to teach them skills once they are professional. Just look at All Black centre Ma’a Nonu and (Bok flank) Schalk Burger, who are both much better players now than they were when they first became professional.”
The proof of the pudding will be in the eating for Jones, but he did help Jake White’s Boks become a lot more effective and less boring when he was Bok consultant in 2007. If Meyer, who doesn’t have experience of coaching anything but the Bulls way of playing, had shown any inclination towards owning up to his own limitations by bringing a Jones in to help, I might be less eager to see the back of him.
The revolution has to start somewhere and Jones’ words are a cause for some optimism.