WP’s creative cure

New backs coach Robbie Fleck tells SA Rugby magazine how he plans to fix WP’s attack problems.

fleckWhen you retired from top-flight rugby, was it always your aim to coach at Western Province?
Not at all. When I retired, I wanted to break away from rugby completely, which I did in the first couple of years. But the call of the game I love was just too great, I just had to return. I played in social games and for the SA Legends team and then I got an opportunity to coach at UCT. I was there for two years and I never really thought it would progress to an opportunity like this. While I didn’t expect an offer from WP, I knew I would regret it if I turned them down. I’m now here until the end of the Currie Cup. We’ll have to sit down and reassess what comes next after the tournament. For now, it’s just a six-month contract.

A lot of top coaches like Rassie Erasmus and Naka Drotské moved straight into coaching after playing. How much of a benefit is it, if at all, to coach at club level first?
The thing about Naka and Rassie is that in their final playing days they were also involved with a bit of coaching and mentoring. It’s not really an uncommon thing these days. For me, it was better to gain experience at club level first. Apart from the technical knowledge you pick up, you learn how to manage players. At club level, you are also allowed to try different things, whereas at Currie Cup or Super 14 level there is far more pressure. It’s more results-driven and so as a new coach you wouldn’t have that freedom to experiment. I’ve gained a lot of confidence from my time with UCT and it’s allowed me to develop my own style of coaching. Hopefully I can bring a few things through to WP, although I’m not saying they’ll work.

You coached at UCT and obviously have a good relationship with the management, and probably a good relationship with Ikeys’ arch-rivals Stellenbosch. How will this benefit WP in the long term?
As a coach in the Varsity Cup you get to see all the youngsters in action, which is a luxury most top coaches don’t have. It will help to know the club scene and the various coaches, but most of all it will help to know what kind of talent we have in this province.

Both you and head coach Allister Coetzee are backline coaches. How is that dynamic going to work?
I report to Allister who will be in charge of the overall team strategy. I will coach the backline using my particular expertise. Allister and I have similar ideas and share the same philosophy in terms of backline play, so that is a great help.

The Stormers had some big problems on attack in the Super 14. Where do you think they went wrong, and how do you aim to fix  them in the Currie Cup?
As an outside observer, I did notice one or two things that I feel I can adjust, and it is an area where I feel I can add value. We want to be known as a team that can score tries.

How do you think the Stormers performed under the hybrid ELVs? Are you pleased the most contentious of those laws won’t be used in the Currie Cup?
I don’t think the Stormers got their tactics wrong in the Super 14. In a competition that utilises the hybrid ELVs, you need a good kicking game, and it’s the same for the global ELVs. You can’t risk playing too much rugby in your own half because the breakdown is such a lottery and there’s a good chance of conceding a turnover. So the tactics weren’t wrong in the Super 14, it was more down to poor execution.

You won the 2000 and 2001 Currie Cups in a team renowned for their expansive style. How much has the game changed, and are you disappointed that WP are no longer known as a free-running team? Is it something you want to change?
The game has evolved and as coaches we have to deal with that. Every team in the Super 14 had to adapt, and I think the only two teams that really kept to their traditionally expansive game were the Chiefs and Hurricanes. The kicking game is more important than ever, but at the same time you don’t want to lose the expansive tradition. The real challenge is finding a balance between the two styles. This is where I feel I can help. I think the option-taking in the Super 14 wasn’t great, sometimes the guys kicked when they should have run and vice versa. We need to improve those aspects of the game.

The Stormers suffered a number of injuries throughout the Super 14 that tested their depth. With Conrad Jantjes out for the season and Percy Montgomery retired, how are you feeling about the depth at fullback?
It is an issue of concern, but I’m giving Joe Pietersen my vote of confidence. He ended the Super 14 well and will feature more in next year’s competition. For this year’s Currie Cup we are a bit thin on depth, not just at fullback but in areas like outside centre, lock and prop.

And at flyhalf?
Yes, and at flyhalf. We do have Willem de Waal and Peter Grant to cover that position though. Willem’s proven time and again how valuable his kicking game is to any team. I also think Peter will make a fine No 12. I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on developing inside centres in this country – it’s the most important position on the field. As far as youngsters are concerned, there are a few U21 players we are looking at. [UCT centre] Tiger Bax is one for the future.

Any plans to improve the tactical kicking in the Currie Cup? Will you bring in specialists like Montgomery, perhaps when the British & Irish Lions series has concluded?
Unfortunately we can’t use Monty as he’s contracted to SA Rugby and will be working with the Boks as a kicking consultant. We have a kicking consultant in Greg Hechter and will be working on our execution.

In the Super 14, the Stormers beat the Lions and Cheetahs, and lost narrowly to the Bulls and Sharks. What does this mean in the context of the Currie Cup?
It’s a boost to our chances knowing we’ve done well against the local teams. With all the injuries, we effectively started our Currie Cup team in those latter Super 14 games, so it’s a silver lining that they’ve had a chance to play together. They beat a full-strength Cheetahs team and the Force, and also competed well against a Chiefs side that had a lot of All Blacks. Those youngsters should take plenty
of confidence through to the Currie Cup.

Who do you think are the favourites to win the 2009 Currie Cup title?
The Bulls and Sharks will lose a number of players to the Springboks so they’ll play second-string sides for the majority of the tournament, but the Cheetahs will only lose a couple to the national team. They’re probably the best placed side at the moment.

Obviously you always aim to win the tournament at the start of it, but what is a realistic ambition for WP this year?
Province are in a bit of rebuilding phase but I think anything less than a top-four finish would be considered a failure. WP is a results-driven union and we accept that. This Currie Cup is about building towards next year’s Super 14, but Rassie [the WP senior professional coach] has stressed the importance of doing well in the Currie Cup itself. We are aiming to qualify for the semis and get some momentum before our Boks get back from the Tri-Nations. With our Boks back in the mix, I believe we’ll be a different prospect later in the competition. I think it wouldn’t matter if we ended up playing the Bulls at Loftus in the semi-finals. We’d beat them with our Boks back in the team, but we have to get into that position first.

By Jon Cardinelli

– This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine