Without a big structural overhaul, the Boks needs a sense of purpose

14 November 2017 - 08:02 By AFP
England coach Eddie Jones.
England coach Eddie Jones.

I've spent the past week in the UK, where I've read at least half a dozen articles on the Springboks, usually in the context of the now bitter 2023 World Cup bid.

I've spent the past week in the UK, where I've read at least half a dozen articles on the Springboks, usually in the context of the now bitter 2023 World Cup bid. While they're often laced with a tinge of political agenda, they all hone straight in on our political system and economic issues as the reasons for our decline in the global rugby hierarchy.

Quota systems and transformation, allied to the exodus of players to Europe where the money is better and the opportunity (supposedly) greater, were their go-to explanations ahead of this northern hemisphere tour.

After our 38-3 drubbing in Dublin, their post-match reporting has been considerably less subtle or charitable. We were simply terrible. And I get the feeling, having spoken to one or two journalists, that in the back of their minds, they're thinking: "Okay, I know the political and economic situation makes it difficult for SA Rugby, but that cannot explain what we saw on Saturday night."

Let's put those thoughts at the front of our minds because they're important. It's very easy to bemoan the challenges we face retaining players, to add politics to that, and then to ignore that a number of the problems are distinct from those two things.

There's no question that the current crop of Springboks is not performing at anything like the level they should be. There are a few players who can say with sincerity that their Springbok performance level has matched what they produce for their provincial franchises.

That has nothing to do with politics, quotas or the 300-plus South African players earning money in Europe. It has everything to do with the microenvironment within the squad. I do not know, and thus will not offer my opinions on, why this is the case, other than to say that the right coaching team can often make adjustments that turn the dial just enough to unlock the true capacity of a group of players.

When Eddie Jones took over at England, he inherited a good, but not great, team fresh from embarrassing disappointments in their home Rugby World Cup. What he gave them was a simpler sense of purpose, certainty and the confidence this provides. The result was a record-equalling winning streak, without needing massive structural overhaul.

Put simply, he got a team whose performance was not equal to the sum of its parts, and he fixed the individual parts. The same intervention would fix the current players in the Springbok team without a massive structural overhaul.

And so this is the first issue we face - we can blame the bigger picture all we want, but something is wrong with the smaller picture, down to the individual players not fulfilling their own potential.

That's not to say there is not a bigger picture in play. Elite sporting systems are sustained by having a critical mass of talented young players entering the pathway at the professional level. This critical mass differs for different countries - New Zealand does well on relatively few, because its collective rugby IQ is so high that the quality of what it selects from is incomparable.

England has enormous volume channelled through well-funded and well-run professional club academies, and the result is unique depth, if not the quality (often) to be the best.

South Africa, on the other hand, relies on schools, our version of academies, which feed into under-20 provincial franchises. When part of the cream being produced at those schools and junior teams is skimmed off the top and taken offshore, then it does compromise the Springbok end-product, but you'll only see this outcome four or five years later.

To an extent, the situation we found ourselves in from 2015 to the present day is the result of that cream being skimmed off from about 2007 onwards. However, that's not why we conceded 95 points in two away matches against New Zealand and Ireland this year. It's the long-term problem, related more to our general potential of a rugby nation.

So we have two problems. One is fixable, in the short-term. But the longer we conflate these two issues, out of laziness, the more gradually we will continue to sink.