Pulling the strings

Springbok assistant coaches Gary Gold and Dick Muir have had a major influence on the team’s playing philosophy, writes Gavin Rich in SA Rugby magazine.

In the movie Robin Hood, the hero plays a defining role in the battle that enables the English to beat off an intended French invasion.

The English monarch, King John, seeing the French surrender, asks who they are surrendering to. One of John’s right-hand men points at the Robin Longstride (later to become Hood) character, played by Russell Crowe, and says, ‘They are surrendering to him’.

No doubt the king is aware of the role that Robin has played in saving England, but at the same time he is jealous of his popularity. He reacts by declaring Robin an outlaw of the state.

Why are we starting off a story about the Springbok assistant coaches by retelling a Hollywood screenplay? Because there may be a little of King John in Springbok coach Peter de Villiers. His public tirade against his management team in April could only have been sparked by dissatisfaction that others were being credited with the Springboks’ success.

In the end, the coach’s threat to sack staff never amounted to anything, and the same management team that ended the last international season were working with De Villiers when the Springboks started the new one.

What De Villiers was doing, or so it emerged, was just blowing off steam, doing a bit of sabre rattling to warn his management members while at the same time sending out the message to the public that he is the boss.

To understand why there would be a need to do that you have to understand that like all of us, De Villiers is human. That means he does have an ego, and while publicly he did all the right things last year by staying in the background when the players celebrated the Tri-Nations triumph, privately it must rankle with him that he didn’t get full credit from some sections of the media and public.

That the Springbok team is run by committee should be obvious to anyone who has read John Smit’s autobiography. It should have been clear to anyone who understands the game that the Springboks did not achieve their success against the British & Irish Lions and in the Tri-Nations playing the off-the-cuff rugby that De Villiers spoke about when he first took over.

Behind the scenes a long battle was being waged in 2008 to get the Boks back to the game that won the World Cup just a year earlier. The players were part of that battle, but the assistant coaches were also facing each other across the trenches, with the different philosophies of Dick Muir and Gary Gold having an impact on the initial formulation of policy, as well as the evolution that followed.

To explain all of this, it is instructive to go back to the article I wrote on the assistant coaches for SA Rugby magazine in May 2008. At the time they were being appointed, they were clearly not being recruited as assistants who would just follow the head coach’s policy, but would be part of policy formulation.

The problem was that even back then they knew they had conflicting views on how the game should be played, though they tried hard to make it seem like a positive.

‘I know Peter’s style from his time with Western Province [he coached the Disas], and obviously I know Dick from what he has done with the Sharks, and I would say that in a subtle way we do have different philosophies,’ said Gold. ‘Neither philosophy is right or wrong, but while I believe there should be some structure, I think Peter and Dick are what you could call “heads-up coaches”. They like their players to play what’s in front of them.’

Gold went on to say that Muir probably wouldn’t disagree that it was only when John Plumtree arrived as his assistant that structure was brought to the Sharks in 2007, and it was then that the Sharks evolved into the finished article. Gold was right, Muir didn’t disagree.

‘It’s about striking the right balance between structure and letting the players make the decisions, and I think your ability to get this right depends heavily on where you are with the players in their development,’ said Muir. ‘Looking back, I think that in a manner of speaking I was trying to run with players who at the time just weren’t ready to run. I firmly believe that if you have the complete product, in other words players who are experienced and developed enough, you don’t need structure.’

That Muir statement explains a lot. Clearly when he became involved with the Springboks, he thought the players were the finished article. Let’s wind the clock back to the first Springbok training camp under the De Villiers regime in Stellenbosch in late May 2008.

The Sharks had made the Super 14 semi-finals, so they weren’t part of the Bok squad at first muster. Muir wasn’t part of the management that first addressed the players at the Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West.

Perhaps it explains why when the Boks went into their first training sessions, structure was not just a small feature of what they were doing – it was massive.

I watched one of those sessions with Brendan Venter, who was the Stormers defence coach at the time and is now in charge of Saracens. Venter was open mouthed at what he was seeing, and exclaimed that the structured session he was watching was the antithesis of the heads-up approach that De Villiers had been preaching in the media.

Venter was even more confounded when he heard some of the regular Stormers codes being called out, and saw the Springboks  running Stormers drills and moves. Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus was also watching from the stands at the Danie Craven Stadium.

Understandably, Gold became unpopular with Erasmus for a while, and he was also in hot water with De Villiers when I wrote in the Weekend Argus that the Springboks were employing Stormers strategy. I know this because Venter, a good friend of Gold’s, told me as much.

But Venter wasn’t the only person I chatted to during that Stellenbosch camp. The players were more talkative in those early days about the De Villiers reign, and one of them told me towards the end of the camp that everything had been well on track and the squad had been heading towards a structured approach before Muir arrived and, in his words, ‘messed it up’.

The Boks continued with what they started, however, when they played the first game under De Villiers against Wales in Bloemfontein. For the first 50 minutes it was text-book traditional Bok rugby, with Butch James playing one of his better games of that year. The Boks won comfortably.

Unfortunately, though, they scored a couple of long-range tries once the Welsh were forced into a massive catch-up game in the second half, and this must have duped De Villiers into leaning back in the direction of the Muir heads-up approach. We media probably didn’t help when, in praising the Boks the next day, we noted that little had changed in overall strategy since the World Cup.

It was heads-up rugby that the Boks played in the early part of the Loftus game, only the heads were clearly missing – it looked like chicken-without-heads rugby. The Boks won in the end, but they nearly ran themselves out on their feet, and the Welsh were allowed to be far more competitive than they had been in Bloemfontein.

This pattern of doing well with structure one week and then forsaking it with near disastrous results was to continue for much of the season. For instance, the overly frenetic approach of Wellington was followed by a more controlled and structured approach in Dunedin, and the Boks scored a historic victory.

But instead of going to Australia retaining the same approach, the Boks telegraphed an intention to become more attacking by dropping Percy Montgomery. The Boks lost in Perth, and they lost 19-0 to the All Blacks at Newlands playing rugby that was a long way from the tried and trusted Bok template.

And so to Durban, and the match against the Wallabies, where the chasm in the camp in terms of the intended approach was made obvious to the media by the massive differences in the utterances of the players, the two assistants and the head coach.

At the media conferences during the week, Jean de Villiers spoke about the need to play from the right positions on the field and to kick when on the wrong side of halfway, and Juan Smith spoke about the virtues of structure. So did Gold. But when Muir spoke he was clearly speaking heads-up rugby again, and he and De Villiers seemed convinced there had not been any error with the strategy in the Newlands disaster.

Behind the scenes a meeting had taken place, at the behest of the assistant coaches, between players and management at which a new way forward was formulated. Under pressure, De Villiers was forced to let the players have their way – but judging from his and Muir’s statements, they didn’t know what that way was.

The return to structure didn’t bear immediate dividends in Durban because some 50-50 calls went against the Boks early on. When they fell behind they lost composure, and it was clear not all the players were on the same page. Neither were the coaches, for The Mercury reported afterwards that two different strategies were suggested to skipper Victor Matfield by the respective assistant coaches at half-time.

History shows that a return to direct rugby saw the Boks score a massive win over the Wallabies in Johannesburg in the final Test of that Tri-Nations, and but for a slight wobble in Edinburgh, the template was retained for the end-of-year tour and into 2009.

Of the two assistants, Gold played the more important role in the success of the new player-driven culture because his understanding of the need for a structured approach led him to act as an interface between the players and the other coaches.

Percy Montgomery, when he was with the Boks last year, also played a massive role in preaching structure, and in the Tri-Nations he played a bigger role than merely performing the duties of a kicking coach.

The reality is that strategy within the Springbok set-up has never really been driven by De Villiers – there have been occasions, such as in the beginning in Stellenbosch, when Gold was clearly allowed to have influence. There were other times when Muir had more influence, usually coinciding with a heads-up playing style, and of course, over the past 18 months the players have been steering the ship.

But the senior players cannot be fall guys because they are seen as indispensible. The assistants may be more expendable to De Villiers, which explains why it was management who were in the line of fire when he thrust out his chest and proclaimed ‘I am the boss!’ That was what De Villiers’ media outburst was about.

In order to do so, he had to find a suitable fall guy, and his fellow management were easy targets.

By Gavin Rich

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine