SA Rugby magazine’s hard-hitting interview with the Springbok coach.
Your critics say that your technical knowledge of the game is poor, and that all the technical stuff surrounding the Boks’ game plan comes from your assistant coaches and the senior players. What’s your response to that?
I went to Wales to do my level-two coaching course, and paid my own way. The way it works is that you do the course and then go coach for another two years before you return to do the level-three course. I had just come back to South Africa when the Welsh Rugby Union called me and said they were so impressed by my technical knowledge of the game that they wanted me to do the next course straight away. I chose to do those courses in Wales, because I’ve always admired the great players they had in the ’70s, like Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams. I knew I would be working with equally talented players back in South Africa.
So you do make technical contributions in the Bok set-up?
Of course. When I said the All Blacks were scrumming illegally in last year’s Tri-Nations, I had video footage to back it up. No one else in the Bok squad had spotted it. The same thing happened when I questioned the Wallabies’ scrumming methods this year. I was the only person who saw what they were doing. I also make technical observations about other areas of the game, like lineouts and attack.
Do the senior Boks run the show as some have suggested?
Let me make one thing clear – I am the boss, I am the CEO of South African rugby.
In John Smit’s autobiography he explains how the coaches and the senior players meet the day after a Test to plot the way forward for the week ahead. Why did you decide to have such a democratic process?
A good CEO doesn’t make every decision on his own, he consults with other senior people in the company and gets their input. Why would I not want to listen to my assistant coaches and senior players like John and Victor [Matfield]? They all have something to offer. But the final decision on how we play rests with me.
There’s a rumour going around that Dick Muir made those controversial substitutions against the Lions in the first Test in Durban. True or false?
Let me explain. My voice isn’t suited to the radio we use [to communicate with the staff on the sideline] as I talk too quickly and my voice goes high and then low. Why would I want to talk when I can make use of Dick’s strong voice?
But does the message to make the substitutions come from you?
So why did you make all those changes when the Boks were 19 points ahead and in complete control?
You know, if I could have done it over again, I would have made them earlier, because I could see the guys were getting tired and went into a defensive mode. By the time I brought the fresh legs on we couldn’t get out of that defensive mode.
Smit believes the Boks would have won by 25 points if those changes had not been made.
No, I don’t agree with him.
Do you regret the way you handled the Schalk Burger ‘eye-gouging’ episode after the second Lions Test in Pretoria?
No, I don’t.
Why didn’t you just tell the British and Irish journalists at the post-match press conference that you couldn’t comment until you had watched the video? In the end, Smit had to step in and say that.
Why should I have had to do that? The South African journalists in the room should have asked me what it was like to have beaten the Lions in a series. But you sat back and let them ask me those questions [about Burger]. You wanted to see me fail.
But you could have stopped their line of questioning yourself. Why rely on the local media?
No, you should have stopped them. You were all intimidated by them. I saw the look in your faces.
So you have no regrets at all about that press conference and the following one on the Monday?
I regret confusing the words ‘condone’ and ‘condemn’. If I had spoken to [the foreign media] in Afrikaans, I would have won that battle easily.
Then why didn’t you?
No, why man? I just got one word wrong.
Were you given a dressing down at that meeting with SA Rugby after the Lions series?
No, it was just a meeting to discuss the progress of the team. We had a similar meeting at the end of last year.
But you seemed to choose your words far more carefully at press conferences after that meeting. You were a changed man during the Tri-Nations.
I didn’t change. You [the media] changed because we were winning. I will never change. That’s why I say ‘I am who I am and I don’t give a damn’.
Why do you think the South African rugby media want you to fail?
Because your man didn’t get the job.
Who? Heyneke Meyer?
You said it, not me.
Do you think some of the media are racist?
You said it, not me.
Do they irritate you during press conferences?
I know that most of them have played rugby before, but I can tell by their questions that they haven’t played at a very high level. If it hadn’t been for apartheid, I would have played for the Boks.
Let’s go back to the beginning of your stint as Bok coach on the day you got the job. How did you feel when [Saru president] Regan Hoskins said your appointment was ‘not for purely rugby reasons’?
I don’t let the bad things in life affect me.
But how did you feel when you heard those words?
I felt nothing. Regan is entitled to his opinion and it didn’t bother me at all. I know I’m a good coach and that I deserve to be where I am today.
The Boks finished last in the 2008 Tri-Nations after starting the tournament as favourites. Why did you choose to abandon a structured approach for a more expansive one?
What laws were we playing under? We had to adapt our game because of the ELVs. I never said that I didn’t like structure, I said we would play total rugby. When I got the job as coach I said I wanted to take the Boks to the next level.
So you don’t regret adopting the game plan used last year?
Then why the return to a more structured game plan in this year’s Tri-Nations if total rugby was the way to go?
The message came from me that we should kick more this year. Then because we had kicked so much [in the three home Tri-Nations Tests], we were able to surprise the Wallabies in Perth with a running game that resulted in four tries.
What was your lowest point of that somewhat difficult 2008 season?
The sex-tape story, which wasn’t true. I had to watch my 82-year-old mother cry.
Before you were appointed as Bok coach, there was talk that you’d pick 10 black players in the starting line-up if you got the job, yet you finished the Tri-Nations with only two black wings and a black Zimbabwean prop who wasn’t eligible when Jake White was coach. Have you failed in terms of transformation?
If a racist white guy voted for the National Party, but then changed his views after 1994, that is transformation. The Springbok team has been transformed because the colour of a player’s skin doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not going to pick black players to make up the numbers, because I will do them more harm than good.
But there were still only three players in the Bok starting XV. Isn’t that a concern?
Look, I think Adi Jacobs is the No 1 centre in the country, but he got injured and by the time he was fit Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie were doing well together so I couldn’t drop either of them. Ricky Januarie is an excellent scrumhalf, but I can’t drop Fourie du Preez. And Conrad Jantjes broke his leg earlier this season. We could have had six players of colour in the starting XV in different circumstances.
But you only had three which is why you were slammed by that transformation committee.
What have they done for the good of this country? What contribution have they made?
You’ve said that the Super 14 coaches are to blame for the lack of black players coming through. Do you stand by that?
Yes, they don’t think black players can make it at that level.
Would the situation be different if three of our five Super 14 coaches were black?
You said it, not me.
Do black players and coaches have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition and plaudits as their white counterparts?
Of course! I’ve had to work 10 times harder than any other white coach to get to where I am today. Why wasn’t I ever offered a coaching job at Super Rugby level?
Is there something wrong with the system when someone like Frans Ludeke, who failed dismally with the Cats/Lions, gets the Bulls job?
You said it, not me.
You have a high profile as Bok coach and earn a big salary. Has that changed you as a person?
I haven’t changed. I still live in the same house in the same area [in Paarl]. It will be hard for me to leave because I want the people in my area to be proud of the fact that they are living near the Bok coach. I still drive the same car that I had before I got the Bok job. It just needs to get me from A to B.
Do people you know expect more from you? Do they ever come and ask you for money to help them buy a car or pay off a loan?
No, do I look like a charity?
By Simon Borchardt
– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine