Coaching South Africa’s National sport squads
And in the often inconsistent world of South African sports, that man is needed to absolve the sins of the Springboks’ abject World Cup performance, and while he’s at it, work is needed with the Proteas and Bafana Bafana.
We have been here before, and this time round we needeth three men to cometh to be precise. So when Pitso Mosimane, Gary Kirsten, and Heyneke Meyer were handed the reigns as South African national men’s team coaches in soccer, cricket, and rugby respectively, they were ushered in as messianic figures who were going to cure recent sporting failings.
The hawk-eyed media and the always-hopeful public largely welcomed their appointment. Immediately, the three wise men felt the Atlas-like weight of national expectation. After all, this is a country where the JSE index rises or falls based on our national teams’ Saturday scores.
The reality is that each of these men will face similar difficulties in fulfilling the winning destiny that those in green-tinted glasses have in mind. Despite it appearing nowhere on the job spec, each coach must rebuild a brand.
Due to circumstances beyond each man’s control, some level of repair work is required to the tarnished or bruised image of each of our national sporting teams.
Quite apart from the spectre of incompetent unions and financial scandals, and before each of these coaches faces the real crucible of AFCONs, ICC events, major test cricket series, or Rugby Championships, they have to face up to the lingering odour of chronic underachievement. Yes, apart from a few notable dates in 1995, 1996, and 2007, South Africans will always think their teams should, and more importantly can, do better.
The coaches might try and claim that engineering mental and tactical change is an arduous process which takes time, but time is something these lambs do not have should they wish to avoid the slaughter. The nature of modern sport and the impatience of fans dictate that they must start winning now. It will be hard to balance the winning habit while still busy evolving the psychology of the national players, and there is no other way to do this but simultaneously. Time waits for no man, regardless of his potential.
What each of these coaches will know, or soon find out, is that a winning team takes the focus away from a muddling national union. And whether they like it or not, our national teams remain intimately linked to their administrators. Pitso Mosimane has had the first go in this regard, owing to his appointment in 2010. Truth be told, the South African Football Association (SAFA) is still viewed as bungling and incompetent because they lavished incredible amounts of money on two Brazilian coaches for no more than a bag of beans in return, and today are still accused of failing to organise meaningful friendly matches for their national coach. Bafana Bafana themselves fare little better as a team since their failure to qualify for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2012 and the frankly laughable case of Mosimane not reading the rulebook correctly.
It would seem Bafana Bafana are worlds away from a team like the Ivory Coast, replete with big-name players with game-turning abilities. But how did humble Zambia upset all the odds and win AFCON 2012 with unheralded players? For Mosimane, his team’s failures are caused by a complex mixture of not having all his best players at the same time, and not having very good players at that. And when he calls up the players they are as lukewarm about national assignments as their parent clubs are. Zambia have shown us that a little patriotic fervour goes a long way. Even Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula recently suggested looking to other sporting codes for lessons in nationalistic commitment: “I told Pitso to visit a Springbok camp and see how they do things.” Bafana Bafana hail from the one country in Africa with unrivalled infrastructure, the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup.
They have a strong and well-financed league and, certainly by African standards, have more than enough money and talent to succeed. If he can get past SAFA’s nonchalance, Pitso Mosimane needs to rally his troops and suck them out of the cult of “I” and get them to put the ball in the back of the damned net. Some are already reaching for the knives after he failed to bring an AFCON 2012 qualification. He has a free pass into AFCON 2014 by virtue of South Africa hosting the event and that is likely to be the competition which will define his tenure.
When Gary Kirsten took the reigns as Proteas coach in 2011, soon after winning the ICC World Cup with India, he found his own unsavoury sideshows. He could surely not have welcomed the fact that Cricket South Africa (CSA) was in the throes of a damaging bonus scandal which saw them lose sponsors as fast as Jacques Kallis was losing hair (and then growing it back again). Add that to the lingering noises of player-power and cliques within the test team, and Kirsten had some issues to deal with, as quickly as possible.
With a drawn test series against Australia and a sticky series victory against Sri Lanka, which had to go to the third and deciding test, the Proteas can be said to be doing just enough to avoid any major scrutiny at this point. Early success in New Zealand does not detract from the fact that the Kiwis are perpetual also-rans yet know how to punch above their weight. Kirsten has to eradicate the propensity for the popped-collar brain-fade that haunts the Proteas, a team which has struggled to put to bed eminently winnable home series for years now. After seeing his countrymen escape with a drawn test series against the Proteas in late 2011, Steve Waugh, the captain of some of Australia’s most aggressively-minded cricket teams stated the obvious, “They (the Proteas) really should have beaten Australia 2-0… But for some reason they can’t quite grab it when the opportunity presents itself.” Did someone say “choke?”
In Kirsten’s case, he has to engineer a change in the South African cricketing mind-set. For too long has the test side looked to avoid defeat before chasing victory, cue a host of unambitious declarations after posting a mammoth target, set defensive fields, call back Paul Harris, be the nearly-men of world cricket. The Proteas have produced some of the world’s best players through the years and have certainly been in range at times, but are yet to win an ICC competition. They will be well aware that they can regain the number one test ranking if they whitewash New Zealand in three tests in March 2012. But will it be too much pressure for the fragile Proteas?
In rugby, Heyneke Meyer takes up the mantle of national coach under a financially strong and trouble-free union, but has been left with a decidedly limp Springbok carcass on his hands. The Springbok brand has taken a battering, with Meyer’s coaching predecessor Peter de Villiers accused of everything from turning a once-in-a-generation player group into elder statesman also-rans, of allowing those same older players onto his coaching panel, of staying in the tactical dark ages, and of giving easy test wins to our fiercest foes in the name of a not-so-cunning plan. When Meyer gets started, he will have a lot of ground to make up in what is arguably the most difficult and scrutinised position in all of South African sport.
The Boks are the most physical team in world rugby, with an endless supply of enormous physical specimens. Granted, they have won two World Cups through sheer defensive belligerence, but in the normal test season can be beaten with surprising ease and regularity by Australia and New Zealand. Meyer also has a remit to change the mind-sets he inherited from his predecessor. The Springboks, because of their high-quality player base, will always be able to win test matches, but how many of us have wished they were coached to play in more ways than one? The stubborn adherence to the kick-chase strategy at the height of Peter de Villiers’ reign gave every opponent extra time off in lieu of a tactics meeting. The counter was so obvious – practice catching bombs, meet them at the breakdown, then do our own thing. Heyneke Meyer must bring diversity to the Bok attack if the team is to make an impact in a fast-changing sport.
The Boks were woeful in the 2011 Tri-Nations, a competition in which they rolled over and gave away test victories while trying to nurse their first team into prime health in an ultimately fruitless effort. There is the expectation of a better showing in the mid-year test series against England and, crucially, the new Rugby Championship.
Each sporting code is crying out for a period of continental or world dominance. It can be argued that each code has enough prevailing factors in its favour to make a run for it. But our national coaches must start to win, and as always in international sport they must win now. It will be difficult, but in each case the path to winning will take some tweaking before it becomes a habit.
In this fixation with winning, and winning intelligently, there is a crumb of comfort: one thing that South African coaches will never have to contend with is the pressure to win with panache. It’s not in our psyche. The All Blacks lost their Rugby World Cup 2007 quarter-final against France because they believed the drop goal was beneath them. South Africans are more pragmatic. What we simply ask is that we try to win at all.
Some teams set themselves up to win a certain way. South African teams often set themselves up not to lose. There is a crucial mental aberration in this last approach that prevents our players from trying to surge through gaps in the last minute of rugby games, that holds back our cricket captains from calling for an untried player to get his chance, that stops the national soccer team from putting aside ego for that second breath needed to win games. It informs our team selection and adds to our tendency to prolong the careers of old warriors.
It amounts to a fear of losing, when winning should be the preoccupation. This is where our coaches will earn their money – by releasing the winning imperative in our sportsmen. These coaches may not be messiahs, but they will have to show bravery in trying to deliver miracles.
by Adrian Ashley
Published in Playboy SA April 2012