In the span of three years Naka Drotske won the Currie Cup as a player, manager and coach. It is doubtful any other man has achieved this rare distinction in the game.
If for no other reason but this, Drotske’s impact on South African rugby has been massive. But it isn’t just this: he also won the World Cup in 1995 and played in some huge Test matches for the Springboks, but most of all, it’s the players he’s helped develop and become world class that has been Drotske’s biggest achievement.
The Cheetahs boss will walk away from the game on Saturday after spending almost every day for the better part of the last 40 years either playing the game or coaching it.
After a difficult two years Drotske has opted to quit the game completely – Saturday’s Super Rugby showdown between his Cheetahs team and the Stormers at Newlands being his last outing.
“It’s the right time. It’s time for the younger guys to take over,” he said this week. From next week Franco Smith, the Shimlas Varsity Cup-winning coach and a former Bok team-mate of Drotske’s, will be in charge of the Cheetahs.
“Myself and Franco come a long way. We played together at school level and then later on too. I wish him all best, but he’s got some big challenges. Depth is always going to be a big challenge in Bloemfontein. You’re rarely able to have the same group of players from one season to the next and often you’re left working with new guys at the start of each season. So, continuity’s a problem.
“Super Rugby is one of the most demanding competitions in the world; it’s seriously tough and when you’re coach of the Cheetahs it becomes so much more difficult. The bigger unions always seem to have more depth than us and to be successful you need that continuity which we just don’t have. We’ve had key injuries this year and look what happened.”
Drotske and his team have, indeed, struggled to make an impact this year; just two years on from their best ever showing in Super Rugby. In 2013 the Cheetahs finished sixth and played in the “quarter-finals” – a campaign the 26-Test Bok rates as a coaching highlight.
“No one gave us a chance that season yet we went to the knockout rounds and very nearly to the semis,” he said. “It was a great squad and a good season. That, and winning the 2007 Currie Cup final in Bloemfontein (20-18 against the Lions), are my highlights.”
In that 2007 team – Drotske’s first year in charge after sharing the Currie Cup with the Bulls the year before as the team manager and winning it in 2005 as captain of the team (when they beat the Bulls 29-25 at Loftus) – were the likes of Bok centre Marius Joubert, Duane Vermeulen (who played at No7), Jannie du Plessis and Heinrich Brussow, both of whom played off the bench.
Drotske says Brussow and scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius are among the best players he’s coached. “For the full package you can’t look further than Heinrich and Sarel. Their attitude has always been impressive; what they give on the field is what you get on the training ground. The impact they made for the Cheetahs over the years was immense.
“More recently, and for his sheer talent and skill, a guy like Willie le Roux stands out. He’s a truly special player.”
So, how does he feel that his time at the Cheetahs is almost up? “I have no regrets. I’ve enjoyed my time here and believe I took the union forward. I’m glad I could give something back to the union after I’d received so much from them in my playing days. After Saturday I’m done with rugby. I’m now going into business and am excited about that. It’s time for a new challenge.” - The Star