Thelo Wakefield’s grandiose unveiling of his newest appointment just when the team for which he is responsible was at their lowest ebb was excessively shabby, writes Liz McGregor.
It was odd, last week, to see Western Province president Thelo Wakefield sitting in the seat normally occupied by Stormers captain, Jean de Villiers. In the chair beside Wakefield – the one in which us rugby writers have become used to seeing Stormers coach Allister Coetzee, week after week, was Gert Smal, whom Wakefield was introducing to us as the new director of rugby.
But what was even more disconcerting was the difference in attitude.
After the kind of loss that has devastated the Stormers over the past few weeks, De Villiers, despite a freshly battered body and ego, would have done an immediate mea culpa, an unflinching analysis of his own and his team’s role in their defeat. Allister Coetzee would have done the same. Each would evince an admirable refusal to blame. Responsibility for failure and for the rectification of mistakes would be entirely their own.
Wakefield was the opposite. Despite the fact that he is the big boss – the man ultimately in charge of this team – he showed not a shadow of self-doubt. Proudly introducing his new white knight – Smal – he kept using the word “quality”. We need to surround ourselves with quality people, he announced.
What was he saying? That the coaching team lacked quality and he was now going to save the day by imposing another leader on the pack?
Watching this self-congratulatory display, I thought: this is the reason why the Stormers are at the bottom of the log: this bumbling management by unaccountable amateurs who don’t have a clue about how to manage some of the finest professional athletes in the world.
Whenever I raise this issue in Western Province circles, I am told that the problem lies in the fact that it is 91 amateur clubs which govern Western Province rugby. But surely they too must wonder why their elite team persistently fails to reach its potential? And this applies not only to the Stormers.
The Western Cape boasts the richest rugby talent in a well-endowed country. A study by the Sports Science Institute of South Africa shows that 46 percent of rugby-playing high schools are in the Western Cape. It is these schools which produce our rugby players. All the union has to do is recognise this talent and manage it to its full potential.
It is interesting to compare the Western Province Rugby Union with that of the Blue Bulls, who have reinvented themselves and modernised in the two decades of democratic rule – and the advent of professionalism. The reservoir of talent upon which the Bulls can draw is minuscule by comparison with that of WP: only 16 percent of rugby-playing schools are in Gauteng and these schools have to feed both the Lions and the Bulls. Where the Bulls excel is in quality of management. The fact that there are far fewer amateur clubs in the region is a huge advantage. The number of superannuated club presidents clogging up their board does not succeed in inhibiting a dynamic and accountable professional arm.
Each of the Bulls teams – Super Rugby, Currie Cup, under-21 and under-19 – has a phalanx of specialist coaches and fitness and medical staff. They have dedicated scouts who keep databases of every promising schoolboy in the country: they plot his progress over the years and snap up the best.
Management takes responsibility for its appointments and supports its coaching staff, both publicly and privately. Chief executive Barend van Graan resisted the public’s baying for the head of Frans Ludeke in 2008 when he lost his first 14 Super Rugby games after succeeding Heyneke Meyer as head coach. Instead he quietly worked with Ludecke, who went on to vindicate Van Graan’s faith.
The same applies to the Bulls’ management of players. They take promising youngsters and train them up. They look after their most valuable players: an excellent example is how Victor Matfield is being managed. He is not being made to play on tour now – instead he is rested so that he is in peak condition to boost the Springbok squad later this year. Meanwhile, in best Bulls tradition, he is working with young players, passing on his skills.
Western Province are lucky enough to have the Springbok captain in their ranks but they show absolutely no grace or vision in how they manage Jean de Villiers: playing him into the ground without any consideration for his own or the country’s best interests.
One of the most admirable qualities of South African rugby teams is their loyalty. Partly this is because it is enforced by draconian contracts which forbid any public criticism of their bosses.
But mostly it is to do with the dynamic of this ultimate of team sports. The reliance of teammates on each other is absolute – for their lives, ultimately – because rugby players can and do get fatally injured. So it is very rare to hear complaints from either coaches or players. But, such is the level of demoralisation in the Stormers camp at the moment that some of it is leaking out.
Players feel that skimping on medical staff exacerbates the injury crisis.
The same skimping applies to the coaching staff: Coetzee is head coach of Super Rugby and Currie Cup rugby and he has also been responsible for recruitment. There is no specialist kicking coach.
Wakefield’s grandiose unveiling of his newest appointment just when the team for which he is responsible was at their lowest ebb was, I thought, excessively shabby.
Smal may well turn out to be a wonderful addition to the Stormers. But he is just as likely to join the list of talented, dedicated men such as Rassie Erasmus and Nick Mallett who are just too big for the small men who employ them.
* McGregor is author of Touch, Pause, Engage: Exploring the Heart of South African Rugby and, most recently: Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newpapers