Boks need a coach

Gavin Rich, writing in the Weekend Argus, wonders how much longer John Smit will be able to keep his team together.

So a British & Irish Lions tour has come and gone and at least this time there won’t be any British journalists butting me on the head while muttering over and over again ‘We did you, we did you’, as happened on this night 12 years ago.

Instead I had to listen to former Lions scrumhalf Matt Dawson, who was on a BBC radio programme I took part in, telling the people of the United Kingdom that the Springbok coach was ‘absolutely bonkers’, ‘unbelievable’ and a ‘discredit to the game’.

And then afterwards, in the final Test, the Lions scored the most emphatic victory of the series.

So yep, you have probably figured it out – I am not sure how I feel.

It was ‘us’ who did them this time, but pretty much the same way as they did us 12 years ago – by exploiting some quite weak selection and strategy decisions from the opposing coach.

Had Ian McGeechan got his selections right for Durban, the Lions would probably have won this series 3-0, and the Boks would have been made to pay a much bigger price than just embarrassment for the fault-lines that are appearing under Peter De Villiers.

The Bok coach has been a severe embarrassment to the country, and those who argue in his favour on the basis of his results are either just not close enough to the team to know what is really going on, or they are wilfully ignoring the facts.

The fact is that De Villiers inherited a World Cup winning team held together by a core of individuals who rank among the most experienced rugby players in the world.

They played against a Lions team that, apart from being poorly selected first up, struggled to come to terms with the challenges posed to the Lions concept in the professional era, when provincial games are no longer proper examinations and there are not really enough of them to get the combinations to groove.

The Lions were hammered 3-0 in New Zealand in 2005, with not one of those games being close, and considering the scarcity of world-class players in the Lions unit, the Boks should have expected something similar.

There are probably a few reasons why this was not the case, and credit must be given to the Lions for the way they fought, but I am inclined to agree with Eddie Jones, who in a London newspaper column described the Boks as a team that looks under-coached.

Yes, the Boks were winning until yesterday, but how much has De Villiers had to do with those victories?

For those who know what is going on within the camp, it will not be news that the players are running the team. It is one of the reasons why they seem on their way to regaining their reputation for indiscipline.

You really can’t allow the inmates to run the prison indefinitely without there being some kind of drawback.

John Smit is taking a great deal on his plate at the moment, and his captaincy last week, the way he kept his players calm when the mortars were falling all around them in that first hour, played a big part in the way the Boks were able to win it in the final minutes.

But how much longer can Smit and his lieutenants Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez keep the Boks together?

Yesterday the cracks were clearly becoming evident, and the Boks have got progressively worse during the series.

It is when the experienced players go that the Boks are going to need a coach. Is De Villiers the right man to take the Boks to 2011?

I don’t believe he is. His record might look impressive, but there is a big difference between a successful coach and a good coach.

Former Australian cricket coach John Buchanan was an example of a successful coach. The Australian team he was in charge of for several years was brimful of experienced, talented players – all of them world class.

Buchanan’s team picked up trophies and dominated the Test game. But Shane Warne had doubts over Buchanan’s credentials as a coach, and he was vindicated once Buchanan was no longer coaching a team of super-stars. His performance in the recent IPL was so poor that he has now been sacked.

They used to say about Kitch Christie – ‘the right man at the right time’.

It may be that De Villiers will be remembered as ‘the wrong coach at the right time’, meaning that if ever there was a time when a flaky coach could be carried, it is now, when the team has been playing together for so long and has such a long established winning habit.

Unfortunately that means they probably won’t kick onto the level where they should kick onto, and while the coach may, at the moment, be able to get away with having minor input to strategy, that won’t be the case forever.

When the experienced players move on or retire, and inexperienced players become more prevalent in the team, the Boks are going to need a coach.

In fact, they need one now.

By Gavin Rich, Weekend Argus