If there is one thing that football has taught us, it is that in sport, talent is not everything. Coaching, or should it be management, at the top level has such a huge impact on a team’s performance that it can literally defy the odds. And as such, going hand in hand with this, poor management or coaching can destroy a talented team.
Leicester City Football Club, in the Premier League were given less of a chance of winning the title than Elvis being found alive, yet they did it, with a group of nobodies. A lot of that has to go down to (coach) Claudio Raneri and his managing of his team.
How Big An Influence Does A Coach Have On A Team?
In a rugby contest, there is another success story that tells of the influence of a coach:
England, under previous coach Stuart Lancaster, totally embarrassed themselves at their own World Cup by being knocked out in the group stages. Following that, the inventors of the game found themselves in eighth place on the World Rankings and were seen as a sinking ship.
In steps Eddie Jones, after a little wrangling with the Stormers who had him first – if the schoolyard idiom is anything to go by – and things quickly turned around. In less than a year, Jones and his England team have made history by whitewashing the Australians – the same Aussies who made it to the World Cup Final – and jumping up to second in the rankings.
So how did Jones do it? Did he do what every fan wants with a flailing team and fire every player? No, Jones’ biggest call on taking over was announcing a squad that was almost indistinguishable from Lancasters. Jones happily took the same tools (players), but this craftsman (coach) was far more skilled.
Players like James Haskell and Chris Robshaw were facing a barrage of hate from the public, yet, in the Australian series, under Jones, they both put in Man of the Match performances. Those two players are once again cult heros of English Rugby thanks to their influential leader.
The England RFU absolutely broke the bank to get Jones to England, buying him out of his Stormers contract and luring him with everything a coach could dream of. And the reason for this? A coach is the most important part of your team, he is the one that sets the tone, and he is the one decides how high a team can fly.
Look at other coaching appointments in rugby’s powerhouses. Australia appointed Michael Cheika after he managed to take the Waratahs from a good team to a title winning one through some innovative and powerful play. The Waratahs were always a good enough team on paper to be the best team in the world, but they needed direction, self belief and the right attitude to do it. All that came from Cheika and as such, he was rewarded with the biggest job in the land.
The New Zealand method of coach appointment is something to behold, much like their players, they have a conveyer belt of excellence when it comes managment. Hansen worked under the illustrious Graham Henry at the All Blacks from 2004-2011, working as an apprentice, happily learning the ropes until he was ready. By the time Henry left, picking up masses of silverware along the way, it was a seamless transition to Hansen to take over and the All Blacks never skipped a beat.
How South Africa Compares?
Now, we look at the Springboks’ coaching hiring and firing policy and it becomes quite cringe worthy. There is no succession plan, there is no reward for great work, there is only bad racial and governmental policy that has the biggest influence in the coaching appointments.
Going back to Jake White’s appointment in 2004, he was the last coach to be selected for the right reasons. White was hardline and controversial, but he stated he would win the World Cup in four years, and that was that. He said there would be a rocky road to get there, but that is how it would be.
White delivered on his promise, but was almost sculpered when things went pear-shaped, like he said they would, on the way to 2007. He had a plan and he stuck by it. SARU’s reaction to the hardline, and successful White, was neither to keep him, or to try and build on successful momentum, but to rather hire on political pressure.
Pieter de Villiers was hired as the first black South African rugby coach and the contrast couldn’t have been more different. De Villiers rode White’s structures for almost two years before the wheels started falling off, he was soon dismissed and Heyneke Meyer was appointed – four-years too late.
Remember, Meyer was the first South African coach to win a Super Rugby title – in 2007, White’s last year – with the Bulls who were a team on the edge of collapse when he took over. Meyer, in 2007, was a lot like Johann Ackermann is today with the Lions. He built the Bulls up from obscurity to heros, and instead of being rewarded at the right time, was pushed aside due to political pressure.
It seems perhaps that history is repeating itself. We have a man in Johann Ackermann who has turned the Lions from relegated to Super Rugby table leaders in three years – yet he is not the Springbok coach. Allister Coetzee had the Stormers for eight years, and while he got them to a final, and a few South African conference titles, he only got steadily worse with the Stormers before they too booted him out.
SARU have made transformation their key focus – not winning – there is no denying that, if you thought the Springboks are behind in playing style, they are light years behind in the coaching department under Coetzee, Stick when compared to Steve Hansen and Eddie Jones. Reality is Coetzee will not rocket the Boks to stardom, nor will he win a World Cup.
The excuse that Ackerman is green and untested is a poor one. We give coaches four years to make an impact and win a World Cup, he has only needed three with the Lions…