Opinions, Super Rugby

Fleck and coaches not the problem at Stormers

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Western Province president Thelo Wakefield held his crisis meeting with the Stormers coaches last week.

On second thoughts maybe not, for it is likely not much was said or discussed. Wakefield’s public utterances struck me as the usual knee-jerk response at a time when the team is struggling from an elected official who relies on votes to keep him in his position. In other words, be seen by the media and the public to be doing something when in actual fact you aren’t able to do much.

Nick Mallett summed it up in his usual forthright manner when I interviewed him a few years ago for a book I wrote on the post-isolation Springbok coaches. Referring to ‘crisis’ meetings of coaches that were called at junctures of the Ian McIntosh, Carel du Plessis and Jake White tenures when the national governing body was under pressure, Mallett said it was all really just a show.

“The problem was that they (the presidents) had no idea why they had appointed the coaches in the first place so naturally they had no clue about how to fix it. But they needed to be seen to be doing something,” said Mallett.

Mallett had first-hand experience of how little expert thought went into the appointment of coaches. When he was interviewed for the Bok job he wasn’t asked a single question about his rugby philosophy. And the same held true for Du Plessis, who had what could be described as a revolutionary and off-the-wall approach to the game.

On the subject of Du Plessis, and just in case it appears I am picking on Wakefield, who is really just a product of a dysfunctional system, let it be recorded that Louis Luyt, regarded by many as the most successful SARU president of the modern era, was the man who appointed Du Plessis. At the time Du Plessis had not coached rugby at any high level and was effectively appointed because he had been a great player. Small wonder he lasted only a few months.

It was also Luyt who called a meeting of 19 coaches to advise McIntosh in the week building up to a test match against England in 1994. It was Luyt’s way of reacting to the fall-out from a humiliating defeat at the start of a two-match series. The Boks did win the following week, but it would be fanciful to suggest the turn-around was because of the meeting.

Rugby is not like soccer where you can suddenly change managers mid-competition and neither can you really effect a dramatic change to the playing style halfway through a campaign. The building blocks are set in place during the pre-season.

Sure, a change of coach can reinvigorate. When Dick Muir took over as Sharks coach from Kevin Putt halfway through the 2005 season, the Sharks scored a great win over the Brumbies in his first game in charge. You could almost sense the determination of the players to impress their new coach. But it was only really the following season, 2006, that we started seeing the Muir stamp.

More recently, John Mitchell took a while to get his Blue Bulls to settle in last year’s Currie Cup. They only made the play-offs by the skin of their teeth. The Bulls are a very different animal now to what they were then, and they are growing all the time.

Mention of Mitchell brings us back to Wakefield. It was Wakefield who in 2015 turned down his director of rugby Gert Smal’s recommendation to have Mitchell installed as the Stormers coach. Robbie Fleck is a good young coach but he would readily admit that he would have loved to have had the opportunity to learn off Mitchell.

That Fleck never got that opportunity was because Wakefield was brow beaten by his Lions counterpart who knew full well that Mitchell had the capability of turning one of their biggest local rivals into a formidable force.

Now three years later he is talking about crisis meetings to find out what is wrong. There may not be as much wrong with the Stormers as some make out, but if they are lagging it is because Wakefield made the wrong decision in 2015. If a crisis meeting was ever needed it should have taken place at the time that the professional rugby man, Smal, had his recommendation overruled by someone elected from club rugby to preside over a professional sport.

The crisis meeting needed to overhaul a dysfunctional system is long overdue.

Read more from Rich at Business Day Sport

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