Four years ago, the SA Rugby bosses did the right thing morally by appointing Peter de Villiers as the first black Springbok coach. Next month they will hopefully do the right thing again. This time by picking the best man for the Bok job – doesn’t matter if he is white, caramel, black, or something in-between.
Cape Times - Ian Smit
I don’t want to dwell too much on the Peter de Villiers era. For me, it was a period bright and sweet with promise that turned dull and bitter with disappointment. It’s true that his teams won in New Zealand, bagged a Tri-Nations title, and tied a knot in the tail of the Lions. But as our first black Bok coach, De Villiers could have achieved so much more, both in terms of developing the Bok style of play and shining a warm light of hope across all our rugby communities, especially those crippled and mistreated in the past.
In any case, it’s virtually certain that “Pikes” de Villiers will no longer be in charge next year. A source told rugby writer Ashfak Mohamed on Tuesday that Gert Smal has overtaken Allister Coetzee in the race.
Is Smal the best man for the job? Well, that of course depends on your rugby opinion, and you can imagine the fierce rugby arguments we all thrive on resonating across the land over the next few weeks.
If I had to name a Bok coach right now, it would be Nick Mallett. Yes, “Saint Nick” has ruled himself out, but talk is cheap and money buys the whisky, so a good offer could of course make him think again. I like the fire and the passion of Mallett. And gee whizz, the man knows and loves the game. He can’t stop talking rugby. Take Mallett to Antartica and give him a six-month sleeping pill and the first thing he will ask you when you wake him up is: “So did the Stormers win the Super 15?”
Mallett, of course, is a blowtorch who burns whoever crosses his path, and he will need an even stronger personality to keep him in check. I’m not sure anyone can wrestle him to the ground if need be.
I admire the way people like John Mitchell, Ewen McKenzie and Todd Blackadder think about the game. For various reasons, they are unlikely to take the job or be available. Ted Henry has retired. Heyneke Meyer has many fans. Victor Matfield has punted Frans Ludeke, who, don’t forget, has won two Super 14 titles and a Currie Cup.
All of which brings us full circle to Gert Smal and Allister Coetzee. Smal has a dour image and a slow grinder of a voice, but scratch a bit under that exterior and you will find a coach who is a tough disciplinarian, demands a strong pack, but who also gives his backs the freedom to express themselves. Think of what he was like as a player – a big and fearsome loose forward who loved to run and was dynamite with ball-in-hand whatever the game situation (luister jy Pierre Spies?). And he took no nonsense. Ask Gary Knight of the New Zealand Cavaliers, who was felled by a Gert Smal left hook at Ellis Park that would have had Joe Frazier smacking his lips.
Not only does Smal have a good transformation record, but he put together a proposal to foster and grow black rugby in the Eastern Cape. It was just ignored.
Smal was also known as a meticulous organiser, endlessly studying and researching opponents. My only reservation about him as Stormers coach was his tendency to stick too long with limited players like Adri Badenhorst and Tjoepie van den Heever.
Allister Coetzee? The sad truth is that he has only himself to blame if he does not get the job. And I say that as someone who was deeply impressed with Allister Coetzee in his first year as Stormers coach, and who saw him operate with skill and tenacity at a difficult and fractured press conference after the 2010 Super 14 final in Soweto.
This season Allister has not done enough to quieten the constant whispers that he is now little more than a Rassie Erasmus puppet. Plus the Stormers had too much of a defensive mindset, despite the occasional thrills and a semi-final spot. And I know quite a few people who are getting a little tired of some of Allister’s mantras. As in: “We are on track for a title next year, we are at the tipping point, we must play the game in the right areas, we must earn the right to go wide.”
Then is there the small matter of trophies. They worked in different eras, but as a head coach, Smal has two Currie Cups. Coetzee has none.
I hope the bosses pick someone who will be committed to meaningful transformation. Someone who will not neglect traditional Bok strengths, but will also keep up with modern trends and devise a new attacking strategy. Someone who will talk the talk of a rugby man in public. We don’t know how he will react to the immense 24/7 pressures of the job, but you know what, Gert Smal sounds like a pretty reasonable deal to me.