Lima Sopoaga’s departure to Wasps at the conclusion of this year’s Super Rugby season is another example that the overseas player drain is not exclusive to South African rugby writes Mark Keohane for Sport24
New Zealand manages the consequence of the player exodus better than the rest because of the national coaching structures and also the quality of those coaches.
Ireland’s very successful Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt was schooled in the New Zealand professional structures. He transferred that thinking to Ireland and implemented very similar structures and also forged a very strong working relationship with the four provinces.
It’s Ireland first now in Ireland and the four provinces place a premium on Schmidt’s input. The provinces have also aligned with Schmidt’s thinking when it comes to managing players who are nationally contracted, in terms of their game time and there is a two-way stream of communication.
Rassie Erasmus, as Director of Rugby for Munster, worked closely with Schmidt for the last two years and he experienced first hand the benefits of the Irish system, both for country and for province.
He knows this working system thinking can be transferred to South Africa’s four Super Rugby franchises and also the two PRO14 franchises. There are adaptations because South Africa is not Ireland; nor is it New Zealand.
The rugby coaching and management principles applied by Schmidt and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen are consistent with Erasmus’s and primary to those principles is that those involved with the national set-up from within the coaching and analytical structures work all-year round. Their roles are not restricted to the international season that starts mid-year. Their role is also not exclusive to working with the selected Springbok squad at camps and also during the international season.
Erasmus and those in the national coaching structure will be a presence all-year round on the South African professional rugby scene. Erasmus wants to get an understanding and appreciation of how each of the four Super Rugby and two PRO14 franchises function. He wants to contribute where needed or wanted and he wants to learn as much as he believes he can teach.
He coached the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup and also headed up the Stormers Super Rugby challenge. He had a stint at the Cats in Super Rugby early in his coaching career.
His journey as a coach has been longer than most think because he finished playing professionally before he turned 30 and he was a head coach of a professional team as a 30-year-old. He is now 45 and while many still think of him as a relatively recent Springbok, the reality is that Erasmus’s professional coaching career has been longer than his professional playing career.
He certainly has done his apprenticeship, from Johannesburg, to Bloemfontein, to Cape Town within the South African professional structures, and most recently in Ireland as Munster’s head of rugby.
Erasmus accepts the realities of drain on player resources because of the lucrative lure to players of going to Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan. It is never going to change and the increasing strength of the Euro and Pound in relation to the rand means it is delusional to think there will be a decrease in player departures.
What has hurt South African rugby the most is how the player drain has weakened the Super Rugby franchises. The Test team should be able to survive, as New Zealand has shown in refusing to select overseas-based players for the All Blacks.
The underbelly of the All Blacks, the Super Rugby franchises, have been vulnerable at times over the last decade but excellent coaching and player identification has ensured that New Zealand has still continued its dominance of the competition despite losing close to 150 players, which if you do the math translates to five Super Rugby squads
New Zealand, in the time of losing those players, have continued to win the title and all five franchises have won Super Rugby at least once.
Erasmus believes that there has to be greater alignment with his national set up and the six main professional coaches in the country. There needs to be a vision around how best to improve South African rugby as a collective and this doesn’t mean every team playing a similar pattern or being a clone of the other.
The collective he talks about is intellectually, where coaches brainstorm and strategise together and where the four Super Rugby and two PRO14 coaches actively and operationally are a part of that bigger South African picture.
He doesn’t see it as a justification that because South Africa loses players to overseas clubs then the natural knock on effect is South African teams must be expected to lose.
New Zealand has 31 All Blacks among the 147 players overseas and they have lost 12 of their last 52 capped Test players. There are also 15 others who left who now play for other countries internationally. But their domestic product remains strong.
South Africa’s domestic game, according to Erasmus, can also be strong but it has to be a collective, in which he wears those franchise caps as much as he wants the franchise coaches to wear the national cap.
The South African Rugby Union offices reopen on January 15, but Erasmus and those coaches already contracted to his new national structure (Jacques Nienaber and Pieter de Villiers) started working on January 3. They’ve already started engaging and interacting with the franchises, in some instances purely as observers.
Erasmus appreciates, having been that franchise coach, that no one knows the player better than the franchise coach, who spends most of the year with the player. He also knows that a national squad is only as strong as the competition structure and franchise environment from which those players are chosen.
If he can contribute to a making the franchise environment stronger from a rugby intellectual position, then those six franchise coaches will naturally make his national environment stronger.
It’s a win-win situation and while most of the media attention this week has been on where England coach Eddie Jones has been spotted visiting South Africa’s franchises in preparation for England’s three Test series later this year, the most significant visits have been the ones by Erasmus and his team.
They’ve been on the road from January 8 and will be for most of the next six months as Erasmus actively works an on-field player blueprint that finally speaks to the collective of South African rugby.