The Springboks Are Losing Their Story

We are wasting our failures.

springboks vs japan world cup 2015

There comes a time for any organisation when failure is the best thing that can happen to you. Every year needs a winter. But if you don’t learn how to fail well, and fruitfully, things can start to come apart.

That seems to be happening to our national rugby team.

Yes, I know I wrote a month back how much I am enjoying them at the moment. I still am. I don’t find narrow losses to other professional teams massively disappointing. But maybe I am not competitive enough.

But the vast majority of supporters are disenchanted. And the last few weeks of fixtures and news have not represented an upward curve. When you lose your supporters, and when you lose the sense of a hopeful narrative, trouble looms.

To understand how the Springboks have lost their grip on their own story, we do need some historical context. So let’s remember some other lowpoints.

Under Rudolf Straeuli, the Boks lost by 50 points to England and went to Kamp Staaldraad. Under Jake White, the Boks lost by 50 points to Australia (and, yes, they also went on to win a World Cup). Under Heyneke Meyer, the Boks never won the southern hemisphere competition and lost to Japan and Argentina.

You’ll note that these are our last few coaches – except for Peter de Villiers. That’s because De Villiers, in rugby terms, did little wrong in his tenure. We beat the All Blacks regularly, won a Tri-Nations, beat the Lions and the side was looking very good in the World Cup, before that Bryce Lawrence debacle, which was honestly never sufficiently investigated considering how awful he was, and how he set up a limping home side for a victory.

My point is, it is not like Springbok rugby has ever been without its weaknesses. A lot of people seem to be forgetting that right now.

At the moment, our coach is having to do without his two first choice flyhalves (Lambie and Pollard), his first choice inside centre (Jan Serfontein), his first choice tighthead (Redelinghuys), his first choice number eight (Duane Vermeulen), his first choice blindsider (Siya Kolisi) and the list goes on.

Yes, he has made mistakes. Yes, there are not enough Lions players, still, in the squad. Yes, Strauss is not good enough to be captain. But give him a break. Given the patchy history of South African rugby, he is not completely stuffing things up.

And please, don’t blame quotas. There is not one black player who doesn’t deserve his place in the team right now, considering all the injuries (Mohoje could conceivably only be replaced by Notshe). After four years of Heyneke freezing out everyone who was a little bit different, it really is not appropriate to talk about quota problems right now.

In short, to fix things, we need to go a whole lot deeper than just the current set-up. We need to look at the deeper story. To my mind, there are three things that are deeply wrong with our rugby that need to be fixed.

1. A few weekends ago, I refereed a primary school sevens festival. The coaches screamed at me. The coaches screamed at their players. The parents screamed at me. The parents screamed at their children. The number one issue wrong with South African rugby? We treat it like a cult. When you make young kids play under so much pressure, they forget to enjoy themselves, try out things and develop skills. It becomes a kind of sacrificial chore. I know for certain that our schoolboy teams are stronger than the New Zealand schools. And that is a problem! Because we take rugby so seriously, our coaches coach according to pattern and mulit-phase plays, turning players into robots, for the sake of short term success. We need to chill out, and work out a way to de-professionalize our schoolboy rugby. Maybe just cancel provincial schools rugby? Have never been sure what the point of it is.

2. There is no way we should be picking any player who plays for a foreign club. The All Blacks don’t do it. The Wallabies only allow massively experienced players to be picked. Under their rules, only Habana would qualify for us, which would be fine. Our players go overseas, and yes, the leagues there are strong, but they are nothing like Super Rugby. Our players lose their speed and intensity. Our local teams are weakened. And we reward mercenaries who think the game owes them R20 million. This is what I mean by not failing well at the moment. We should not be failing with guys like Francois Louw and Morne Steyn. Let’s fail with young guys who can then turn it around as they learn.

3. There are some serious skeletons in the closets of our administrators. Just google Jurie Roux, our CEO of SA Rugby. Nobody wants to get involved in a sport that has a dark side. We’d rather just go to the beach on a Saturday. If something that is meant to be fun turns into a power game, people will just vote with their feet. Sport is entertainment, recreation, so if you mess things up, nobody is really committed to such a degree that they can’t just walk away.

If we don’t address these three issues quickly, get ready for some empty stadiums. Already, most teenagers I know prefer English soccer to rugby. For sport to be successful, it needs to have a sense of adventure and heritage – a story. The Springboks are in danger of losing their plot. In the words of Bob Dylan, “It’s not dark yet… but it’s getting there…”