A fresh breeze is welcome as we wait to taste what the two-day indaba cooked up
IT is easy to be a sceptic, and it comes with the territory in my job. If you just glibly accept everything everyone tells you at face value, then you just produce sunshine journalism and you forget about the truth, or what you perceive to be the truth.
Before it took place, I was sceptical about the coaching indaba in Cape Town over the past few days. There were crisis interventions in previous years that were perceived to be a waste of time.
But while there are still sceptics and cynics subsequent to the two-day indaba, most of those are people who never went near the southern suburbs hotel where the gettogether was held.
There hasn’t been a person who was in the room over the two days who I have spoken to that hasn’t been enthused by the breakthrough that was achieved, in terms of having South African coaches for once collaborating with one another and sharing ideas.
It was the three crisis meetings that were held to “advise” previous national coaches Ian McIntosh, Carel du Plessis and Jake White in 1994, 1997 and 2006 respectively that drove my scepticism, but it was clear at the start of the indaba that this meeting was much broader and more far-reaching in scope.
Of course, talk is cheap. Acting Saru president Mark Alexander was on the money when he pointed out that the proof of the pudding will be in seeing the implementation of what was spoken about, and the methodology that was decided on.
For a start, the 14 provincial presidents weren’t there and Alexander faces a hard sell when he is tasked with putting across the structural complaints and suggestions made in the last hour of the indaba that was set aside for it.
But if you are looking to change the direction of the game in this country, and how the game is both run and coached, you do have to start somewhere. And where do you start if not by talking and putting something down on paper?
It appears that, for once at least, everyone appears to be on the same page with regards to what the problem areas are.
One of the most positive notes was struck by Alexander in his opening speech. He admitted to system flaws and spoke up the New Zealand contracting system.
He didn’t shy away from the fact that for any coaching indaba to be effective in turning South African rugby back into a world powerhouse, a big reassessment needs to be made on the sustainability of the current rugby structure.
Apart from the scope of it, where the meeting also differed from the previous ones was that it wasn’t called just to address the current poor Springbok performances. Allister Coetzee did plan the indaba long before his win-loss ration plunged into the negatives.
But it may still have helped that the Boks were thrashed 57-15 just 10 days before, for it helped fuel the realism and the humility that underpinned the conference. Coetzee said South Africans would be thumb-sucking if they thought this country was still a top rugby nation, and for the next hour after he said that several coaches laboured the point that what he said was fact.
So there was none of the arrogance that has stunted South African rugby progress in the post-isolation era. That was swept away and replaced with a recognition that it was time to start again from scratch, to forge a completely new path. Well not completely new, because there was agreement that a new dynamic shouldn’t neglect old strengths, and that is how it should be.
The rugby issues that were raised and solutions proposed were ones most rugby people would agree with, as it has been what many have been calling for. There will be a concerted and coordinated drive that will incorporate unified drills that all the franchises will include in their training programmes in an effort to improve individual skills. In time, those drills will be permeated throughout the South African rugby system.
The focus will be on producing players that are equipped to play not one particular kind of game, but whatever strategy is demanded. The key is not just producing more skilled players, but ones capable of better decision-making.
For instance, the territory battle is not just about kicking for position, as there are other ways to set up territorial ascendancy. If you are inside your 22 and the opposition have four men back, you have to have the nous to know that kicking is not a way to relieve the pressure in that situation unless it’s a contestable that could surrender possession.
It sounds obvious but, up to now, the South African way was to think of exiting and the territory game as something that is based just about kicking, and that to attack from the right areas of the field requires the ball to be kicked there.
The document that will be the product of this initial meeting in what is sure to be a long process, and one that won’t bring overnight results, will reflect that change in mindset.
That is just one positive. There were many more, and at a time when there is so little positive about South African rugby, it feels like a breath of fresh air has just blown through the door.