In August 2000, I received a phone call from Alex Broun, the then Springbok media man. He told me to hold the line, someone wanted to talk to me. It was Nick Mallett, the Springbok coach, who, just a few days before had watched his team beat the All Blacks 46-40 in a maelstrom of a match at Ellis Park.
Mallett wanted to tell me how much he had enjoyed a column I had written in the Saturday Star on the day of the Test. It was a nonsense column, a list of flippant suggestions as to what the Springboks might say when asked, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (Sample answers: Robbie Fleck: “Just cross the f****** road, you chicken f***!” Percy Montgomery: “The chicken crossed the road?”). In what had been a tough season for Mallett, he said the column had given him a good laugh as the pressure on him became increasingly intense. He would have just one more match after the Ellis Park game, being forced out by the then Sarfu under the trumped-up charge of criticising Test ticket prices.
Almost 12 years, a spell in Europe with Stade Francais and Italy later, Mallett has now settled into the role of analyst with SuperSport, but he has lost none of his brutal honesty and talent as a raconteur, either on screen or to a group of rugby people. On Wednesday this week, as part of SuperSport’s build-up to the England tour, Mallett spoke his mind on Heyneke Meyer (wonderful coach, but perhaps a bit conservative) and England (they may grab a win on tour). It could have been Mallett as the England head coach to South Africa. He was a hot favourite, but Stuart Lancaster pipped him to it by dint of his success with England in the Six Nations. You feel, though, that England have missed out. Mallett would have coached the team with former All Black coach Wayne Smith, who has decided to remain with the Chiefs. A formidable pair.
“It seemed pretty definite I wouldn’t get it subsequent to Lancaster’s performance in the Six Nations, which made it very, very difficult for them to change him,” said Mallett. “Wayne Smith and I were going to do the (England) job together. When I coached the Barbarians in a fund-raising game in November, I was coaching with Wayne and we chatted about it. He said he would love to have more experience in the northern hemisphere and he would love to do it with me. Funnily enough, at the interviews (with the Rugby Football Union), I actually said if I didn’t get the job that a key person for England to get was Wayne Smith because backline attack is difficult to coach and he’s been very successful with every side he’s been involved in.”
The role of the assistant coach has grown since Mallett was with the Boks. In his day it was a “lot more amateur”, he admits. He was head coach and Alan Solomons was backline coach. Meyer eventually joined them at the Springboks as forwards coach. Now his former assistant and one of his players – Rassie Erasmus – are the men who will shape the Springboks.
“In Heyneke and Rassie we are very, very lucky in having two very good coaches. Rassie, from a technical point of view, is outstanding, and Heyneke, from a personality, man management point of view, is exceptional. We’ve got the world’s greatest exponent of learning other people’s calls in Rassie.
“There isn’t a single coach in the world who goes into as much detail in working out how the opposition call, and what they mean. He’s absolutely believable at that.”
Erasmus was the same as a player, said Mallett, and, strangely enough, there was no better example of this than in Mallett’s last match as Springbok coach, in Durban.
“Rassie was the first player who came up to me and said, ‘Listen, Nick, I’ve been studying the way the Australians get out of their half. They throw to (John) Eales at four, they bring Jeremy Paul down on the peel-off, they then pass behind the back of (Owen) Finnegan to (Toutai) Kefu, who takes it up. They set up the ruck in the middle of the field and they’ve got a left-footed kicker in (Chris) Latham or right-footed in (Stephen) Larkham to kick out.’ We had our defensive system, and Rassie said, ‘You always want me to tackle Kefu, but I want to go for the interception’. I covered it by telling Joost to make sure he would tackle Kefu if the intercept didn’t work.
“It worked unbelievably. We’re in their 22, their line-out, throw goes to Eales, around came Paul, pass to Kefu, interception by Rassie Erasmus, try, under the bloody poles! The Aussies all dived on his back. The question (to the TMO) ‘Is there any reason I can’t award the try’, only came in afterwards. The question was, ‘Did you see the ball grounded?’ Of course they couldn’t see it grounded, there were Australians all over it. Latham was the last man up, he actually pats Rassie on the head and says, ‘Well done’.
“We didn’t get the try, lost the match 19-18 and it was ‘cheers Nick’.”
Mallett believes the England series will be closer than some SA fans expect it to be. He doesn’t expect many England fans will come out for the tour, but says that it is imperative that they keep the English quiet.
“One of my favourite images in my coaching career was watching 20 000 England fans walking out of a packed Stade de France at the (1999) World Cup quarter-final when Jannie de Beer kicked all those drop goals. I loved waving them ‘bye’ as they walked past ... we need the South Africans to buy tickets and ...”
“Are you allowed to talk about tickets these days?” I chirped Mallett. He laughed. “Absolutely! Saru weren’t too happy when I did it years ago, but I did it anyway.”
Nick Mallett – still doing things his way. This time on your television sets.