By: Craig Ray
England, under coach Eddie Jones, are a perfect example of a coach being ‘culturally sympathetic’ to the team he is leading.
Jones coined the phrase at the turn of the century when he was in charge of the Wallabies, who at the time dominated the southern hemisphere game with their slick, multi-phase play directed by the likes of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham.
In typical South African fashion, fans and experts at the time were crying out for the Boks to play like Jones’ Wallabies. Jones responded to that assertion by saying that a coach has to be ‘culturally sympathetic’ to the team he was leading. He was saying: ‘play to your traditional strengths.’
Jones’ England are nowhere near as slick, or as aesthetically pleasing as Jones’ Wallabies. Because Jones hasn’t tried to turn Chris Robshaw (yes, I know Robshaw is injured) into George Smith, or to make a Stephen Larkham out of George Ford.
Jones has taken the raw material at his disposal and played to its strengths while gradually introducing layers of complexity.
England have won 16 Tests in a row (15 under Jones) and most of those they have won ugly. If there were bonus points for style, England would have few because their game is about getting the job done, by whatever means.
They won their opening two games of the Six Nations with come-from-behind efforts, which shows their mental strength and confidence born out of 14 previous wins.
Being an astute coach is less about knowing cool tricks and introducing smart plays than about understanding how to bring out the best in your players by challenging them to be the best at what they know.
The Springboks were in far better shape than England after the 2015 World Cup but, since then, England sport a 100% winning record while the Boks have a 33% winning ratio.
And that’s mostly due to the fact that there has been confusion about what the Boks are trying to be.
Coach Allister Coetzee failed last year because he listened to too much white noise – ‘the Boks have to be more adventurous, they have to score more tries, they need to be more attacking…’ the voices said. And the coach tried to please them.
Under Heyneke Meyer, the Boks averaged three tries per game in his four-year stint in charge, scoring 143 in 48 matches. There was no problem with try scoring. The Boks were the second leading try-scorers in that period behind the All Blacks.
But in 2016, Coetzee spoke of producing a more attacking style of rugby, the voices in his head winning the battle against what he knew in his heart – SA rugby is built on the basic principles of set piece and defence first. The rest follows.
By the end of 2016 Springbok players didn’t have a clue what style they were supposed to be playing and it showed as they leaked 35 tries in 12 Tests. You can’t win Test matches conceding three tries per game.
Coetzee will stay on for now, which will be confirmed this week. But if he wants to turn the Boks around, he only needs to look at Jones’ England for inspiration.
Being culturally sympathetic is not a weakness; it’s a strength.