Soweto should get more top-class rugby
Following the awful disappointments of 2016, what a sheer delight the last three weeks of Springbok rugby have been, culminating in the series whitewash over France in front of more than 55 000 people at Ellis Park, as well as a wonderful game the night before at Orlando Stadium between the SA A and French Barbarians sides.
Apart from the winning, up-tempo rugby played by both the Springboks and their second-stringers, the other similarity between the two teams is that both clearly enjoy a wonderful team culture.
It cannot be understated how important a role a good team environment will play in the success of a side and we saw last year how the Proteas cricket team drastically improved their results after a “culture camp”.
At the top level, teams are very similar in terms of physicality, conditioning and skill, so the crucial extra 1% that gives sides the edge is often found on the mental side of sport – happy players committed to a cause or a “brotherhood”, to use the in-vogue expression, will give more out on the field.
Sure, Brendan Venter and Franco Smith have come along and brought considerable technical expertise to the Springboks, but I have never, in 25 years of covering South African rugby, seen a squad speak more about just how happy they were to be together and how much they loved the environment than the current group under Allister Coetzee and his fellow coaches. The captaincy of Warren Whiteley must also be mentioned because there’s no doubt he has played a big role in the team culture as well.
It is a similar culture, borne from adversity, that is seen in Whiteley’s Lions team and it is also evident in the SA A side under Johan Ackermann. It was clearly displayed at the end of the game against the French Barbarians in Orlando when scrumhalf Jano Vermaak was spontaneously, just for the sheer joy of it, lifted on to the shoulders of his team-mates after kicking the last conversion, and when the whole squad sang stirring songs together, bobbing in a tight embrace, after the trophy presentation.
The fact that Ackermann has managed to create that culture in the SA A side in just a few weeks is testament to what a fine coach he is and hopefully he will be back in South Africa soon after increasing his experience and knowledge with Gloucester in the United Kingdom.
Ackermann, a former Springbok lock, first made his name as a coach through his technical and tactical acumen in the set-pieces, but he also has the ability to inspire a team, a crucial man-management skill in any coach.
Singing along with the SA A team were a bunch of supporters in the far grandstand and I believe playing top rugby in Soweto has a great future. The SA A game was played at 8pm on a Friday night the day before a Test at Ellis Park, so the crowd was always going to be small.
But I know it is in SA Rugby’s future plan to play more games in Soweto, and to stage them at 3pm in the afternoon and not during a Test week in the same city. There’s no doubt we will then see the crowds pouring in, because there is a great love for the game in Soweto.
Orlando Stadium is also a magnificent venue, modern, spacious and with one of the best views of the field, from any vantage point, you will see. The fact that top rugby did not return earlier to Orlando after the memorable 2010 Super Rugby final that inspired such goodwill is a great pity.