DURBAN – In the same week that Vern Cotter was confirmed as the highest paid rugby coach in the world, fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland quit as coach of the British and Irish Lions, saying there were aspects of the job he “hated”.
Both instances provide a striking counterpoint to life at the top of the coaching tree. The highs are incredible, but the lows can be devastating.
Cotter recently took over from much-travelled Jake White as coach of Montpellier and will reportedly pocket a cool R21 million annually. No rugby coach has earned more.
Gatland also earned handsomely, but his bulging wallet came at a cost. The recent tour of New Zealand, a relative success for the Lions, stood out for the persistent media carping and baiting, the silly clown nose affair and Gatland’s obvious unease amid the swirl.
A Kiwi himself, he ought to have known how insular his countrymen are, a situation compounded by the impact of social media. The all-seeing eye of the media and public was relentless.
Gatland’s decision, which means he won’t lead the tourists to South Africa in 2021, showed how thin-skinned he was.
In this day and age, a thick skin is the most important commodity a coach can possess. Given the regular pressures, chiefly the imperative to win, it’s not a job for shrinking violets.
I remember how, 15-odd years ago, Rudolf Straeuli addressed a press conference at Ellis Park. Close to tears, he despaired at the nature of the job. “It’s just not worth it for 40 thousand a month,” he groaned.
His reign as Bok coach was ignominious and ended messily, underlining the truism that it’s seldom a matter of if a coach will be fired, but when. Very few move off on their own terms.
Even Kitch Christie, the unbeaten coach of the World Cup-winning Springboks, was fired as coach by Bulls president Hentie Serfontein while he lay in his hospital bed.
The problem with coaches is that they start off as fundamentally decent men, but the violent twists and turns of the job can contort them into people we barely recognise. It’s especially true of the Springbok job, where the pressure is white-hot.
Who can forget Ian McIntosh’s crazed eyes?
Or Harry Viljoen, who tried to turn the Boks into a corporation, but then ran a mile when he collided with the real world?
I sent him a note at the time, reminding him of Hemingway’s line that fighting the media is “like two porcupines mating: one prick against a thousand”.
Peter de Villiers was another who wobbled. His reign had elements of the absurd from beginning to end, and even included a concocted sex scandal.
If he wasn’t talking about pots or pans, he was confusing Jennifer Capriati with Danny Cipriani.
This behaviour explains why the regular TV shots of coaches in their little box during matches can be so instructive.
Heyneke Meyer wore his emotions like a neon Las Vegas sign, all fist pumps and loud whoops.
Allister Coetzee tries to play it cool, but the table comes in for an awful thumping when the Boks score or do something daft.
By contrast, John Mitchell is near inscrutable, and similarly, Swys de Bruin enjoys only a modest celebration.
Coaches become quasi-celebrities, something they’re not always comfortable with. Sharks boss Robert du Preez is evidently someone who’d prefer to get on with the job without a microphone in sight. He doesn’t shoot the breeze with the media.
Yet Jake White cultivated strong relationships with the press, aware of the occasional need (and value) to set the agenda. He could banter all day with anyone willing to talk rugby.
The Bok job is probably the toughest for a coach to get his head around, not least the impermanent nature of it.
He’s lucky if he gets a week to prepare his team, and then endures entire months when he doesn’t get near them.
Then there’s the political dynamic, which is like juggling mercury, not to speak of the unending corporate, public and media demands.
Sure, it pays well, and the champagne out of a giant trophy must be sweet, but the gig exacts a heavy toll – even for the best.