Mad Coach Disease - The curse of the Springbok hot seat

Rassie Erasmus deep in thought while watching a rugby game

The social media antics of Rassie Erasmus have often been shrouded in controversy. Picture: Steve Haag Sports

Published Feb 25, 2023

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Durban - There is a book on the rise and fall of Springbok coaches called The Poisoned Chalice and it reveals the psychological torture that coaches undergo in one of the toughest jobs in sport.

The author, Gavin Rich, suggested that when the coaches sip from the chalice, they incur not mad cow’s disease but Mad Coaches’ Disease (MCD).

MCD is easy to detect because the symptoms have been obvious from the early post-isolation coaches – think the thousand-yard stare of Ian Mcintosh – right up to the madcap antics of Rassie Erasmus on social media.

It was Rassie’s recent spat with Nick Mallett – at 3am in the morning he angrily questioned Mallett’s comments on a TV show – that reminded me of how Bok coaches have behaved bizarrely over the last three decades.

Mad coaches disease (noun): At some point as Springbok coach the incumbent will display one, or all, of the following symptoms: a. footin-mouth syndrome; b. selection doubts; c. incomprehensible strategies; d. contradictory behaviour, resulting in: a. dismissal; b. resignation; c. temporary insanity.

In fact, it was Jake White who admitted he thought he was losing his marbles after a host of post-isolation coaches were summoned for a think tank on the Boks in 2006.

Jake’s Boks had lost five matches in a row and SA Rugby was under pressure to either fire him a year before the World Cup or provide constructive assistance. So president Regan Hoskins invited a host of former Bok coaches to a meeting with Jake.

Nick Mallett told Hoskins in the meeting that Jake was simply going through the bad patch that is inevitable for all Bok coaches and that he should be left alone. Hoskins listened and a year later the Boks were world champions.

But White made a telling comment: “Listening to these guys who had been there before made me feel better. I realised I wasn’t going mad.”

Winning the Webb Ellis Cup, though, did not keep White in the job. He did not have his contract renewed and that was not the first time that a Bok coach’s success on the pitch could not save him from his enemies in the boardroom.

Mallett had coached the Springboks to a record-equalling 17 consecutive wins in 1997/1998 and to a bronze medal in the 1999 World Cup only to be persona non grata in 2000 just days after beating the All Blacks in a 46-40 thriller that is regarded as a Tri-Nations classic.

The Boks had then moved to Durban to play the Wallabies and on the eve of the match, Mallett dropped his guard when walking through a hotel corridor. He was stopped by a woman and asked what he thought of the (exorbitant) cost of ticket prices.

Mallett had not cottoned on that the lady was a reporter and said they were too high. The next day The Independent on Saturday led its front page with the headline “Mallett slams ticket prices”, and the blazers at Saru could not believe their luck.

They had their excuse to sack a coach they regarded as troublesome and too outspoken.

The Springbok players did their best to save their coach that day and delivered another cracker of a match. The Boks were leading 18-16 with two minutes to go when a youthful

John Smit strayed offside at a ruck.

As Wallaby centre Stirling Mortlock’s winning penalty drifted through the uprights, so drained the life out of Mallett’s excellent tenure as Bok coach.

Mallett initially wanted to fight Saru in court but then chose to walk away. An interesting postscript is that All Blacks coach Laurie Mains had this to say when Mallett left the Saru building: “Have they (Saru) gone mad?”

Insurance tycoon Harry Viljoen replaced Mallett and hoped that the introduction of modern business principles would take the Boks to a new level. But Viljoen could not handle criticism even when it was warranted. For example, in his first match, against Argentina, he forbade flyhalf Percy Montgomery to kick — in the first half, Percy did not kick once! But as losses and the pressure on the coach mounted, the Boks ended up with a flyhalf that did nothing but kick (Louis Koen).

Viljoen quit and in came Rudolf Straeuli. In the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, the Boks took some fearful hammerings and the distraught coach’s last “ace” up his sleeve was Kamp Staaldraad.

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I was at the 2003 final between England and Australia and that day a Sydney newspaper carried a photo of naked Boks trudging forlornly through the bushveld. Saru has never lived that one down.

Peter de Villiers succeeded White and his relationship with his employers was doomed from the outset when Hoskins suggested that De Villiers had been appointed for reasons other than rugby.

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If Hoskins had doubted that he had the right man, imagine how he cringed when De Villiers lit up the drab world of press conferences with a litany of outlandish comments.

But maybe De Villiers was speaking for all the coaches driven dilly by the job when he said: “Why don’t we go to the nearest ballet shop, get some tutus and get a dancing shop going?”

IOL Sport