In the Book of Job we read of “He that multiplieth words without knowledge”. That reminds me of much that is said in rugby. How often as players did we do something on the field out of blind terror or simply because we couldn’t think of anything else to do? It happened often in my career and led to mirth when a scribe or commentator would wax lyrical about the tactical instinct or keen football intellect behind the move.
It was the same with our most recent former coach. Despite him being a lovely person, we all grew tired of his optimistic and saccharine words when time and again they were not matched on the field. We were fed up with being told before a game how well the Springboks were training during that week. Mostly, that did not resonate with the match performance and, in hindsight, he was tolerated for far too long. Now we have Rassie and, once again, we are hearing lots of words. What is an “alignment camp”? Is it where players agree on “skill sets, exit strategies and line speed”? I am being facetious, of course, but fully expect the term to become part of the rugby chattering class lexicon. Words, words, words.
What is important for a coach, especially a new one, is to set the right tone from the outset. He must engender confidence in the players, individually and collectively. This is not easy to accomplish. Players see through bluster and technical weakness in an instant. They also recognise when a coach does not have a clear vision and a detailed plan to achieve it. These days, unlike in the past, severe authoritarianism rarely works from coaches. Yes, they must be firm but they must also sell themselves to the players rather than simply impose. Let the players be persuaded, cleverly, rather than told, and you have their genuine commitment. It is a balancing act between democracy and fascism that will be completed behind the scenes.
Rassie getting co-operation from the franchises was a good start. Remember a few years ago provincial coaches refused to discuss their tactics and plans with the Boks. Now we have buy-in and a commitment to apply certain principles of play at franchise level in order to fast-track the improvement that is needed in the national side. This “alignment” (there you go!) is a good move. In a way the loss of Pieter de Villiers sends a clear positive message. Coaching the national side will not be a part-time commitment. Well done to him for putting family first but the impasse is an indication that Rassie means business with his preparations.
Rassie speaks well. He is clear, concise and logical. He comes across as quietly confident but not cocky. With improved Super Rugby performances from the Lions, Bulls and Sharks you can sense a feeling of optimism once more in our rugby. Maybe even the fans will start to return to our magnificent stadiums? We’re fed-up with mediocrity.
Rassie has done well in front of the camera and, for sponsors and ticket sales this is important. However he will be ultimately judged solely by what happens when the Boks take the field and the whistle blows. Wales and England, followed by the Rugby Championship, will give us a good indication of whether or not he has knowledge behind his words and whether he can impart that to a disheartened and discredited bunch of players.
Rassie, may the force be with you.