The buck stops here

MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says Springbok rugby must never again lurch from one World Cup campaign to another. It must become a results-driven business with expectation and accountability.

The Rugby World Cup is a tournament that lasts six weeks. It should not be a four-year excuse for any player or coach.

When you read this, South Africa’s fate at the Rugby World Cup could largely be decided. They may be getting close to successfully defending the trophy – or they could be on the brink of packing up and going home.

There will be arrogance among South African supporters. Alternatively there will be denial when there should be insistence that a repeat of the past four years should never again be tolerated, let alone allowed.

The World Cup is undoubtedly the tournament every rugby nation wants to win. The Tri-Nations is a tougher trophy to win but it doesn’t have the global appeal or the romance of the World Cup. It isn’t quite knockout rugby, even though New Zealand has often won the Tri-Nations in a must-win last outing against South Africa or Australia. Everyone seems to forget that because they have blown every World Cup campaign since their successful 1987 tournament.

I don’t understand the view towards the World Cup when it comes to planning and preparation and South Africa is no exception when it comes to putting all the emphasis on the World Cup. It is a tournament that should form part of a four-year cycle. It should not constitute the four-year cycle. Peter de Villiers’ successor should not be judged on whether the Boks win the World Cup in four years’ time. His successor should be judged on how the Boks perform every season, in every Test and in every tournament.

Give the coach a four-year contract, but include performance-based clauses. Make it reviewable after two years. That way the national rugby union is protected, the coach has a form of protection and a responsibility to deliver and no player has the comfort of a four-year cruise because of an affiliation with the incumbent national coach.

Jake White, in succeeding Rudolf Straeuli as Bok coach, gave South Africans a lesson in building a team and the importance of having experience in the change room. But no player can ever be allowed to control the environment in which he plays – and that has been the curse of the Boks in the past four years. Old players, settled, comfortable and calling the shots, do what suits them and what accommodates them. They don’t encourage change, they seldom celebrate the introduction of youth and they grey the area of playing experience and job security.

Whether South Africa win the World Cup or not, South African rugby, to have sustainability, has to have a new approach to the national team, both in terms of expectation and delivery. The expectation has to be that the Boks win every time they play at home and win more than they lose when abroad. Results must be the priority because if a coach has to get results he invariably picks the form players capable of producing a winning sensation. No player is given a four-year guarantee and a 48-month salary advance.

Giving a coach a four-year cycle is an act of suicide if the intent is to evolve and mature into a team of winners. It allows for four years of excuses, either from a coach who supposedly builds in those four years and sees the World Cup as the defining moment of his tenure or it allows for four years of comfort for a coach and players who have no fear of change.

Bok coach Peter De Villiers has convinced himself and a nation that because he put his faith in the 2007 World Cup winners (back in 2008 and again in 2009 and 2010) it was too late to make a change in 2011. He did this because of his shocking results in 2010, when he said that losing in 2010 was a consequence of the grand plan to win in 2011. Other coaches have also used this argument to justify defeats between World Cups.

It is wrong.

Strong leadership is desperately sought within South African rugby to change this mindset. Decisions must be made that make the players and coaches accountable but also ensure that those officials making such massive rugby decisions have to be judged by the
calls they make.

There should never again be a situation when a group of players two years out from a World Cup inform the coach they have a desire to play in the competition and are effectively guaranteed a plane ticket, regardless of form.

There has never been strong managerial leadership within the Boks since White was thanked for winning the World Cup in 2007 and then told to bugger off. Tough selection decisions have not been made because the senior players won’t entertain such behaviour from a weak coaching staff.

The concept of a national selection committee is outdated in a professional environment. Think of the madness. The coach, whose livelihood should be dependent on his team’s results, doesn’t get exclusivity when it comes to selecting his national squad. Two blokes, who have careers outside rugby, make up a three-man selection committee to determine the national squad before every major tournament, be it an incoming series, the Tri-Nations, the end-of-year tour or the World Cup. It is just rubbish and another example of amateur ideals compromising professional principles.

Rugby is a business. Don’t kid yourself that it is a sport, so treat it like a business – and expect those in rugby’s employ to be assessed corporate-style. In business you survive or fall by your decisions, your choices and you are held accountable for those decisions and choices.

Which CEO would survive not investing in a talent like Bismarck du Plessis? He wouldn’t, because shareholders would not accommodate an excuse that the veteran tasked with making the profit would hit his target only every leap year. The board would demand investment in the individual best suited to get results in that year and the demand would be ongoing post every Christmas lunch. A new year would bring a new expectation.

Rugby is a lucrative business for the best players and coaches but it should be accepted that it also ruthless and if the performance does not match the predetermined budgets, that coach and player should be out.

It would also define the type of individual willing to coach the Boks and the kind of player who wants to be part of the Boks. There would be no guarantee of a job if the match returns weren’t proportionate to the salaries being paid.

Think of the financial and emotional investment of the nation when it comes to the Boks. Rugby and government officials implore the average South African to support the team regardless. Forget the make-up of the side, forget how they are playing and forget whom the coach is selecting. Support because you are South African and it is the patriotic thing to do. What crap. Would you invest in a company where government officials urge you not to question the decision-making of the CEO? Would you accept asking a question that involves your investment being dismissed as unpatriotic? I didn’t think so.

The only way to grow our intellect as a nation is for us to debate issues and to educate ourselves that it isn’t a bad thing to ask questions and hold accountable those who survive on supposed patriotism.

If the South African public is the most important shareholder in Springbok rugby there has to be a yearly plan around the team – and this plan includes officials, coaches and players fronting in return for the R450 a person pays to watch a live Test in South Africa, and the huge amounts sacrificed when following the team abroad or purchasing team merchandise.

De Villiers, a week before the Rugby World Cup, did not blink in telling the media that John Smit was the best hooker in the world – and the form hooker of world rugby. Bear in mind Smit did not start against the All Blacks in Port  Elizabeth and played only the last 16 minutes. Smit, to his credit, responded by telling the audience his wife also thought he was the best looking bloke around. Everyone chuckled, but imagine if a CEO of a blue chip company made that statement a week before the financials were due to be made public? The share price would drop. Take it as a given.

De Villiers knows Du Plessis is the best hooker in the world. He knows he should be playing him for 80 minutes but he doesn’t know how to negotiate Smit’s role within the team. De Villiers isn’t equipped technically, intellectually or emotionally to make the decisions expected of one in his position.

De Villiers told Butch James he was his starting 10 for the World Cup and that is why he wanted him back in South Africa and not playing club rugby in England. Pressure from within the squad, by seasoned grizzlies who wanted mates selected and deemed themselves to be untouchables, meant James did not start the World Cup at No 10 but was given a bench role as an insurance policy.

The selection of James on the bench, as one example, made very little rugby sense because he offered so little in terms of versatility. The decision to ignore Du Plessis’ form and pedigree was described by international critics as shameful.

I could cite several other examples in the build-up to this Bok World Cup campaign and the campaign proper once at the tournament, but that is not what this is about.

It is about getting it right post-2011 and ensuring the South African rugby public doesn’t get fed propaganda like Smit is the best hooker in the world on form and Bismarck isn’t.

Smit, a wonderful leader of a team who has achieved everything in winning the World Cup, the Tri-Nations and beating the British & Irish Lions, must have cringed at that statement because he knows where he was once the tutor to Du Plessis he is no longer the master.

In this magazine some months ago I made a plea to support Smit’s captaincy at the World Cup and his starting role ahead of the superior playing qualities of Du Plessis. I did it because of the inadequacies of the coach and his assistants.

Smit had to lead the Boks to the World Cup, but that should never have been a guarantee he should lead them in the play-offs at the World Cup. The best should play. The best should always play, otherwise what is the point?

I just watched Wales lose to South Africa in Wellington by a single point after two of their kickers missed a drop goal and penalty within five minutes of the final whistle. To trail Wales by six points on the hour and then pray for their flyhalf to miss a drop goal from straight in front and their goal-kicker to fluff a match-winning kick with three minutes to play couldn’t have been part of the master plan as sold to a nation of Bok supporters.

This is what you were told to invest in and not question.

To watch a coach describe the one-point win as ‘brilliant’ against a nation that has beaten South Africa once in 100 years was embarrassing. To hear him say everything is on track was simply insulting to the intelligence of every South African rugby supporter.

Accountability! It is the missing piece in rugby’s professional puzzle.

De Villiers has had a four-year excuse from the day he got the Bok job. He has done what any coach would do if given such a free ride. I don’t blame him; I blame a system that allows mediocrity to dwarf excellence. And then rewards the non-achievement with a healthy monthly salary.

Watching Du Plessis play against Wales in the final 20 minutes symbolised everything that can be right about our game. Watching him huddled among the substitutes for an hour before that put into perspective just how much is wrong with our rugby.

Who would invest in a company whose board applauds De Villiers and ignores Du Plessis?

South African rugby’s challenge as a company with national commercial and emotional investment has to be to demand excellence every year and not just hope for it in a play-off match every four years.

To reach this rugby nirvana so much has to change about the way those in rugby do business and we as supporters invest in that business.

– This article first appeared in the October issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is distributed FREE with the newspaper on the second last Friday of the month.